The hand sanitiser produced at NMU.
The hand sanitiser produced at NMU.

This university couldn't wait for their hand sanitiser delivery, so they made their own

By Sisonke Mlamla Time of article published Mar 19, 2020

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With the current scarcity of large amounts of hand sanitiser, Nelson Mandela University’s own scientists are urgently producing hand sanitiser as part of its efforts in preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19).

InnoVenton, the University’s Institute for Chemical Technology, produced its first batch - 200 litres - within two working days.

Dr Nicole Vorster from InnoVenton said: "We had to make and do with what we have, taking into account the urgency."

Vorster said at first, they had to develop a recipe at laboratory scale and then source the ingredients. "As there is currently a shortage of alcohol in the country, we could only source the last two 250-litre drums of ethanol internally. We are now searching countrywide for more.” 

She said fortunately, the other ingredients - glycerol, to soften the liquid’s effect on hands, water, colourant and perfume – were all still available at the university. 

"The sanitiser is being produced in InnoVenton’s pilot plant, which is already set up for the synthesis of chemicals as well as distillation of flammable solvents, such as alcohols," Vorster said. 

The first batches of the hand sanitiser were presently being decanted so that staff who man key entrances can spray the hands of staff, students and visitors using the university.

She said the team jumped to action when it learnt that hand sanitiser supplies were out of stock and the earliest it might reach the university would be Friday.

“We recognised the urgency and immediately got to work."

Working on the hand sanitiser formulation and production, InnoVenton staff from left, technician JJ de Jongh, product developer Dr Nicole Vorster, facilities manager Dr Melissa Gouws, intern Hlumelo Mji and acting director Dr Gary Dugmore.

Vorster said alcohol was produced from fermentation of grains and fruit and breaks down the cell walls of viruses, causing them to dehydrate and die.

Vorster said InnoVenton does applied research mainly into algae cultivation and chemical product and process development.

"It is also a technology station supporting local industries and SMMEs with chemical product formulation and technical support," Vorster said.

In addition, InnoVenton has a well-equipped analytical laboratory which does chemical analysis and physical properties testing for local industries such as the automotive industry.

"The Institute also does teaching and training with two formal programmes, namely the three-year Chemical Process Technician Diploma and the BSc Honours degree in Formulation Science."

She said the diploma with 51 students this year, trains technicians for the petroleum sector whereas the honours programme currently has 12 part-time and full-time students developing their own products, such as cosmetics and cleaning materials.

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