Rider chemistry faculty make hand sanitizer for local hospitals

Donations help alleviate critical shortage
Adam Grybowski

During a simpler time, it was given away for free, distributed in nickel-sized pumps at seemingly every checkout counter and hospital hallway.

Today, people are buying hand sanitizer at exorbitant prices, if they can find the virus- and bacteria-killing substance at all.

To help alleviate the shortage, a group of Rider science faculty are working together to produce hand sanitizer in the University’s general chemistry lab and donating it to local hospitals. This week, their first 10-liter batch of hand sanitizer is set to be delivered to Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell, N.J.

“Everyone wishes they could do something right now, even just to stay busy and have a purpose,” says Dr. Jamie Ludwig, an assistant professor of chemistry. "I hope this will be helpful.”

Ludwig produced the batch at the urging of Dr. Danielle Jacobs, an associate professor of chemistry. Jacobs had seen news reports of facilities retooling to meet the demand of the hand sanitizer shortage. Last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in concert with other government agencies, lifted restrictions to encourage some individuals, such as licensed pharmacists, and organizations, such as distilleries, to create their own batches. Academic labs, like those at Rider, are well-suited to produce hand sanitizer as well.

“This is something that we should do,” Jacobs says. “There are so many people on the front line when we are limited to being home. I'm grateful that we have access to these valuable resources during a time when they otherwise would be going unused.”

The professors say the recipe and process to make hand sanitizer is simple and safe. They followed the guidelines and procedures of the World Health Organization, producing the substance out of ethanol, hydrogen peroxide, glycerol and sterile distilled water — common lab items.

Ludwig volunteered to make the batch since she is one of the few exceptions allowing her to be on campus right now. She has been visiting the lab to maintain the bacterial cultures for her research. Jacobs is ensuring the final batch maintains the proper concentration of alcohol.

Ludwig took her time in consideration of the stakes: Infection can be the difference between life and death. “The process probably took longer than it should have,” she says. “I wanted to make it perfectly.”

As the coronavirus outbreak began to rapidly expand in the U.S. in February and March, hand washing became an essential measure to help reduce the spread of the virus. If soap and water are not available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says alcohol-based hand sanitizers (that contain at least 60% alcohol) are the next best thing.

Alcohol is key. It is the active ingredient in hand sanitizer and must fall within a 60% to 90% concentration to be effective. "If the concentration is too low, it won't kill germs effectively," Ludwig says. "If the alcohol concentration is too high, it can evaporate too quickly and be ineffective, and it can actually shock the microorganisms without killing them."

The hydrogen peroxide works as an antibacterial agent, and the glycerol creates the familiar gel-like consistency that aids in application.

Jacobs and Ludwig hope they will have the opportunity to make more hand sanitizer, at least until the University's current supply of ethanol runs out, but possibly even beyond that.

"We want to use what we have," Jacobs says, "but we are open to working with people who have chemicals, sterile storage containers and even equipment to donate. That would help us contribute to smaller community organizations who, like hospitals, play a huge role in keeping our community healthy and safe but are too often neglected."