VCU Engineering lab produces hand sanitizer

Mission-critical pharmaceutical lab pitches in with side project

From left, Thomas D. Roper, Ph.D., and Yuma Miyai.
From left, Thomas D. Roper, Ph.D., and Yuma Miyai.

Hand sanitizer. Toilet paper. Disinfectant wipes.

When the COVID-19 pandemic emptied store shelves of such in-demand products, Thomas D. Roper, Ph.D., figured his VCU College of Engineering lab could help with one of them: hand sanitizer.

Now, the first batch of VCU’s own Ram-Sanitizer — complete with an icon of the university’s ram mascot — is a reality.

Ram Sanitizer

“We wanted to do something to help during this COVID-19 outbreak,” said Roper, director of pharmaceutical engineering for the college and a professor of chemical engineering.

The hand sanitizer meets the standards of both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and international World Health Organization. Washing hands with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of infections, but when soap and water are not available, the FDA recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Roper said he was looking into organizations that would be interested in funding Ram-Sanitizer and also helping to source large amounts of the ingredients. The team hopes to register with the FDA and make larger batches.

Yuma Miyai, a graduate student in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering who works in Roper’s lab, sourced the ingredients — which are also in high demand around the world — used specialized equipment and followed strict protocols in the lab at VA Bio+Tech Park.

Since one main ingredient, isopropyl alcohol, is flammable, Roper said, “I don’t recommend that people at home do this.” (Neither does the FDA.)

Roper, who is a Virginia Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) Eminent Scholar, leads a project funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) called Pharmacy on Demand. His team has been developing an alternative drug manufacturing process with a miniaturized environmental and industrial footprint. The project was recently deemed mission-critical by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Miyai said the researchers have created a new system to resume work while following VCU guidelines for social distancing. “Everybody’s very proud of the project that we’re working on.”

Roper said, “The idea of Pharmacy on Demand is that you can produce medicine remotely in multiple locations with a portable device,” such as on the battlefield — or during an outbreak of disease. “It might be particularly useful in a time like this.”