Group of University of Alberta scientists steps up with hand sanitizer

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Maintaining social distance while working in a lab to make hand sanitizer is a task a group of University of Alberta scientists didn’t think would be their new reality. That changed earlier this week.

“We’re using the World Health Organization formulation,” said Jillian Buriak, professor of chemistry and research chair of nanomaterials for energy.

“So this is very effective. It’s been tested and we feel this is our small contribution to our local community.”

The idea came to Buriak after seeing chemistry departments in the United States apply a similar assembly line method.

“We said, ‘Holy cow, we need to do this here in Canada, and particularly Edmonton,'” said Buriak.

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With approval from the dean of Science and department chair from the University of Alberta, and a team on board, the scientists went into the lab.

The group started at 10 a.m. Wednesday and within three hours had made 210 litres while working in an assembly line. With a system now in place, Buriak believes it will now take half the time to get the same result.

A team of scientists at the University of Alberta makes hand sanitizer amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy, University of Alberta

Working in a lab can be a very collaborative environment, Buriak explained. Maintaining social distancing while working was a new test, and one the group is taking very seriously.

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“Oftentimes it’s collaborative,” she said. “Someone holding something, another person’s helping… and so having to work around that and give us all space. It does take constant thinking about this. We talked about it and we joked about it, but it’s serious and we know that.”

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The university is using its own resources to make the sanitizer. That includes everything from the high-quality reagents to the plastic bottles.

The group plans to continue making the sanitizer as long as there are supplies and demand.

“We are limited by the resources that we have on hand and we’ll do the best we can with what we have,” said Buriak. “We’re talking large volumes of solvents.”

Buriak believes that what they’re doing is only a small contribution compared to what health care professionals are facing.

“We feel like we need to do something. So if this can help make things a little safer for our first responders then we’re happy to do it,” she said.

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The hand sanitizer is going through the university’s environmental health and safety. They are also talking with the City of Edmonton and Buriak expects it will be distributed to first responders.

As of early Thursday afternoon most had already been distributed to the campus community.

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