Mizzou engineers, who usually create asphalt, now making hand sanitizer

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — As the COVID-19 fight continues across the nation, the University of Missouri is doing their part to help fight germs by producing their own hand sanitizer with local resources. 

With no vaccine to fight off the coronavirus, people are trying to stay healthy and germ-free.

A team of researchers at Mizzou’s Asphalt Pavement and Innovation Lab are using their knowledge of ethanol to help kill germs by producing their own hand sanitizer. 

“We make asphalt, and we break asphalt,” civil and environmental engineer professor Bill Buttlar said. “But we thought for COVID, we have a chemistry-oriented lab — we can make hand sanitizer.”

So he and his team decided to take a step away from building roads and bridges to help fight the spread of COVID-19.

“We’ve probably made over 600 gallons,” Buttlar said laughing. “We’ll probably hit a couple thousand gallons before school starts.”

Buttlar has been a civil engineer for 30 years and said he never thought he would be making hand sanitizer. 

“Engineers are can-do men and women and I was thinking what can we do in our lab,” Buttlar said. “Civil engineers build all the major structures that you see, roads, bridges, skyscrapers, dams, but I work on pavements.”

But what do hand sanitizer and asphalt have in common? The answer is ethanol. 

“We use it to cool down specimen. So if we want to see how asphalt performs at low temperatures, we can submerge it in ethanol, cool down the ethanol and then bend it and break it,” Buttlar said.

“So we have very precise chemistry devices in our lab, and so some of the same measuring devices, weighing devices and chemical storage devices are useful in formulating chemicals like hand sanitizer.”

The ethanol Buttlar and his team are using is made from corn grown right here in Missouri. 

“I imagine there’s a couple of ears of corn in every little bottle of hand sanitizer,” Buttlar said. 

He said the name of the hand sanitizer they make is called “Tiger Paw.” It doesn’t take long to make, but the supplies can be hard to come by.

“Getting the bottles, getting the lids, getting the ethanol — that was the hard part,” Buttlar said. “Putting it together can be done within an hour.”

So what’s the difference between other hand sanitizers and Tiger Paw?

“You will notice we don’t use aloe vera gel base, so it’s a little bit thinner. So it goes on your hands very quickly and then evaporates very quickly,” Buttlar said. 

Buttlar and his team produce and bottle the hand sanitizer themselves with some help from volunteers. 

“My wife has volunteers to put the labels on,” Buttlar said. “We get 100 refill containers from MU Health Care every Friday or more, and so we make up a big batch and we have to fill it.” 

Buttlar said Tiger Paw is tested outside of their lab by a third party to make sure it’s safe. 

He said their next idea is to make automatic dispensers. 

“That pesky little problem of dispensing is what we want to hit next,” Buttlar said. 

Just a floor below Buttlar’s lab, more engineers are making face shields. 

“In the same building, just one floor down from my asphalt lab, thousands of face shields have been made, distributed around campus and then we are stock pilling them for lecturing in the fall,” Buttlar said. 

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