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COVID-19 response Health and safety

Helping hands

Inside the Institute of Environmental Sustainability, Loyola is addressing its hand sanitizing needs with creativity and resourcefulness

By the end of April, Loyola University Chicago’s three Chicagoland campuses were nearly and eerily vacant. So was the Searle Biodiesel Lab, the domain of lab manager Zach Waickman (BA '08, MBA '13), tucked inside the Institute of Environmental Sustainability (IES). Waickman’s hefty processor was quiet, the soap production equipment untouched. Stuck at home, he was left to consider what—if anything—he could offer to aid his community during a pandemic. 

Then a few notes started trickling in from curious faculty members and staffers: What about hand sanitizer? Could Loyola produce disinfectant in bulk? After all, the University will need plenty of it when wide-scale campus operations resume, and it’s not exactly cheap, or plentiful, at the moment. 

Poking around the internet, Waickman read what he calls a “mildly dangerous” amount of research and news reports on the topic. He dialed up Nancy Tuchman, the dean of IES, and batted around ideas. They had the right machinery. Waickman had the time. They couldn’t find a downside in trying.

“Within a week, it had exploded,” Waickman says. “We had a working group that was meeting weekly, we submitted and received full registration with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and there was a report produced with details of how we were going to potentially pull this off.” 

Waickman was to take advantage of a temporary FDA policy that allowed non-traditional manufacturers to develop sanitizer, which is proven to reduce pathogens when soap and water aren’t available. He would work alone, obviating the need for social distancing. He’d follow FDA guidance on ingredients, quality control procedures, and labeling requirements. And, if he put in enough sweat equity, he could produce 100 gallons each day, funneled into one-gallon jugs. Those jugs would cost $10 to produce; on the open market, they can run up to $30. 

He could move quickly, in part, because hand sanitizer production relies on careful measuring and mixing, not a chemical reaction; that learning curve is steeper. And thanks to existing relationships with reliable vendors, Waickman could erect a supply chain for in-demand materials like ethanol and plastic bottles on the fly.

“Everything starts with sourcing,” Waickman says. “You have to source it, then you have to carefully document and vet all the raw ingredients.” 

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Once everything is stocked and the work areas and equipment are cleaned and sterilized, Waickman gets down to business. A large mixing vessel sits on a calibrated scale, and Waickman adds precise amounts in a specific order. Once added, the water-thin liquid is stirred carefully before it’s fed through a filter and then into jugs. (The ethanol-based material is flammable, requiring the use of explosion-proof pumps.) Those jugs are then labeled, boxed, and palleted.

In many ways, the lab is an ideal setting in which to perform this timely work—aside from the calibrated scales, Waickman can take advantage of the lab’s high-intensity ventilation, its stainless steel vats, and its safe storage spaces. The work isn’t demonstrably different, in fact, than creating alternative fuels for Loyola’s shuttle busses or personal care products for Loyola’s restrooms. “This is what we do, to a degree,” he says. 

With Waickman measuring and mixing as often as he’s able, IES will ensure that Loyola has enough sanitizer to stock its three main campuses perpetually, filling dispensers and keeping them filled. The product’s shelf life is three years. Discussions have already started between stakeholders across the University—Facilities, Procurement and Purchasing, Housekeeping—about how to ensure effective distribution. From there, other potential uses could arise. Spray bottles? Wet wipes? Additional staffing? Community partnerships? 

On Waickman’s first day back in Searle, he dressed for success—lab coat, gloves, goggles, organic vapor respirator. The pumps were running, the air compressors humming. Waickman dialed up his stereo speakers to an inappropriate volume for a Wednesday morning, a man alone in his element, using his expertise for the public good. “In the middle of it all,” he says, “I might have screamed to myself inside my mask, ‘God, I love my job!’” 

After the session, Waickman forwarded a selfie to a few colleagues memorializing the project kickoff. In it, he’s holding one of his Loyola-branded jugs, with a shiny maroon label. “This is just the start…,” he wrote in the note. His grin is ear to ear.

Our compassionate response

In the unprecedented upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Loyola has responded with care, compassion, and concern for the well-being and safety of our students, faculty, and staff. Visit our coronavirus response site to learn more about our efforts and the latest updates on plans to welcome our community back to campus.