MISSOULA – Under normal circumstances, University of Montana Regents Professor Richard Bridges spends his days researching potentially life-saving projects in neuroscience, in specific how and why brain cells die in diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS.
With the arrival of Covid-19, he’s working in another endeavor that, while not as heady as spinal cord neurotransmissions, can be just as lifesaving. For the past week, the Cornell-trained biochemist has been elbow deep in isopropyl alcohol and vegetable glycerin, mixing gallons of hand sanitizer for fire, police and medical personnel around Missoula.
“These days, hand sanitizer is worth its weight in toilet paper,” said Bridges, summarizing the feelings of consumers across the country.
Bridges works in UM’s Division of Biological Sciences and teaches in the neuroscience and pharmacy programs. He recently became a hand sanitizer brew master after his wife, Dr. Carol Bridges, said one of her firefighter patients was concerned about the shrinking supply of hand sanitizer for first responders. After a field trip to a Missoula fire house and conversations with firefighter Chris Kovatch, a member of the Western Montana Incident Management Team, Bridges realized he might be able to help and said he just started “winging it.”
There was plenty of information on the CDC website for making properly potent hand sanitizer, he said, but finding the raw materials was a challenge. Alcohol, glycerin and plastic bottles are now as scarce as hand wipes. It is also important to use the CDC-recommended strengths the different alcohols (70% for isopropyl or 60% for ethanol). For help, Bridges turned to several UM colleagues including Scott Wittenburg, vice president for Research and Creative Scholarship, and Chief of Staff Kelly Webster to secure enough ingredients to make the first 25 gallons.
Bridges used his pickup truck to haul 100 gallons of alcohol from a local chemical company back to campus and devised a packaging method while waiting for the plastic bottles to arrive.
“Kovatch rigged up five, five-gallon pails with pumps so first responders and medical personnel could refill their exiting bottles,” Bridges explained.
He relied on Kovatch to distribute the initial batch to first response agencies and Missoula’s two hospitals, while he and volunteer students turned to filling 1,000 plastic bottles with sanitizer.
“It’s definitely a backyard operation,” he said.
Despite his deep background in chemistry and holding the most distinguished professor rank in the Montana University System, Bridges said learning to make hand sanitizer has been a bit of a learning curve. He’s found that a hand drill and paint mixer help cut through the thick glycerin and he wears a face mask to protect himself from the fumes emitted by the isopropyl alcohol.
He plans to keep making the virus killer as long as there are supplies and a need. Ecology Professor Erick Greene loaned him some essential oils from a soap making class, and Bridges said he might add that to a batch to make the sanitizer smell a little better.
Bridges said his Ph.D. never prepared him for this project, but it’s been a gratifying experience to work with others on campus to fill this important niche.
“It’s been really nice for all of us to use UM’s expertise to help and support the community as a whole,” said Bridges.
It might save a life, as well.