Making Hand Sanitizer

SVSU’s Independent Testing Laboratory is making hand sanitizer for local hospitals according to FDA specifications. The ingredients are: ethanol to kill the virus, glycerin to keep the mixture moist and on your skin long enough to do its job, hydrogen peroxide to kill extra-tough bacteria, isopropyl alcohol to make the stuff undrinkable, and distilled water to top it all off.

One of the reasons why my editors and I were both so eager to get these pictures is that laypeople (again, myself included) are easily excited by the sight of beakers and flasks and fancy lab equipment. Chemicals being mixed together tickles our science fetish and makes for good entertainment (think Breaking Bad).

Jesse Maddock, co-founder of Thuban Innovations, bottles freshly-made hand sanitizer.

Junior biochemistry major Marc Dean labels bottles of hand sanitizer.

Senior chemistry major Vincent Flores pours water into a 20-gallon mixer.

As cool as the paraphernalia might look, the truth is that there’s hardly any “science” involved here. (I’m reminded of the scene in Breaking Bad, where Jesse’s like “This is art, Mr. White” and Walt’s like, “Actually, it’s just basic chemistry.”) Like the rest of us, the folks in these pictures just wanted to help. Unlike the rest of us, they happen to have the tools, protocols, and quality controls necessary to meet a specific, urgent need.

What so many don’t get is that science is neither about huge breakthroughs nor quick fixes. It’s not just one lightbulb, eureka-moment after another. If done with any integrity at all, science is actually a long, slow, doubt-ridden, slog that, 99% of the time, does nothing but remind you of how clueless you are about the natural world. But how unsexy is that?

Maybe the cost of this misunderstanding, at the scale of individuals, is a few batches of bootleg hand sanitizer made from cheap vodka, plus some social media misinformation. At a societal level, the damage is infinitely greater. If our government actually understood and respected science for more than its ability to run the economy, we might have gotten the helpers what they needed. If our business and political leaders didn’t only care about the science that produced value for shareholders, but also listened to the science that reminded us of our smallness and frailty on a finite, overburdened planet, we might have been fractionally more prepared to handle a crisis.
How many more will it take?

Saginaw, MI
April 2020

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