Latex could be replaced as the primary material in condoms.
Researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia who were awarded a grant from the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation are furthering research into substances called tough hydrogels, which are currently used in medicine and robotics.
“We hope to deliver a condom that is safe and feels and looks better,” a UW release states. “It’s designed to feel more like human skin than latex rubber.”
The research team touts other benefits of hydrogel condoms, including invisibility and self-lubrication.
“That would eliminate problems with latex allergies and improper use of oil-based lubricants,” according to the release.
Dr. Sina Naficy, a polymer scientist working on the project, said the so-called “next generation condoms” could also be more environmentally friendly because the hydrogels are mostly made of water.
“Hydrogels can also be made to be biodegradable, which solves the problem of condom disposal,” according to the release.
Their recent grant will total to $200,000 in research funds over the course of a year. UW’s project, led by Dr. Robert Gorkin, received one of 52 grants given annually to a pool of 1,700 applicants, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gorkin’s team has a chance to win a $1 million follow-up grant if their research is successful.
WHAT ARE HYDROGELS?
“Our project is to replace latex with a new material,” Gorkin said regarding his team’s mission. That material -- hydrogel -- is something you might already wear everyday.
“If you wear contact lenses you are already wearing a type of hydrogel,” information from UW states. The substance is currently also used in certain toothpastes and shower gels.
As you may guess from their name, the primary ingredient in hydrogel is water, held together by long molecular chains called polymers. Naficy’s research states they have properties similar to those of body tissue.
Sheets of hydrogel are able to stretch more than 1,000 times their initial size, possibly eliminating the need for condoms to be made in various sizes.
MANUFACTURING THE “NEXT GENERATION CONDOM”
One of the biggest questions surrounding the viability of hydrogel condoms is the manufacturing process. The research team says hydrogels currently require an elaborate process and are more expensive to produce than latex, but that could change.
“Traditional manufacturing methods used for latex rubber could be used to produce hydrogel condoms,” information from UW states. New 3D-printing technology could also be used to make the rubberless rubbers.
Gorkin’s team is now testing various hydrogels to see if they will be able to block microscopic particles like sperm, bacteria and viruses.
“We are looking at the safety of (hydrogels),” Naficy said.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Aside from improving the safety of sex, Gorkin said the project aims to assist countries where birth control is not commonly used, leading to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
“This could truly improve the lives of many,” Gorkin said. He claimed his research team will have dialogues with people in areas like Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, where the new condoms could be put into practice.
The scientists hope their innovations will turn condom use from a “have to” situation to a “want to” one.