Space & Innovation

Better Condoms Made from ... Spiky Grass?

New nanoscale technology could result in condoms thinner than a human hair. Continue reading →

With Valentine's Day on the horizon, we bring you good news this week from the world of prophylactic technology.

Researchers in Australia say they've developed a better, thinner and stronger condom by incorporating materials from ... well, from a spiky Australian prairie grass.

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Spiky grass doesn't sound like that great of an idea, condom-wise, but the University of Queensland research team assures us that the relevant materials will actually make condoms more comfortable. In fact, the new condoms could potentially be thinner than a human hair, without any loss in strength or durability.

The new technique involves extracting a certain kind of nanocellulose from spinifex grass, common in Australia, and using it as an additive in latex. Tests have revealed that the cellulose material works on the microscopic level to significantly strengthen latex formulations used in condoms and gloves.

"The great thing about our nanocellulose is that it's a flexible nano-additive, so we can make a stronger and thinner membrane that is supple and flexible, which is the Holy Grail for natural rubber," says researcher Darren Martin in press materials accompanying the announcement.

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The Queensland team tested the new formulation at a condom manufacturing facility in the U.S. Using a "burst test" -- in which condoms are inflated until they pop -- the new latex recipe averaged a performance increase of 20 percent in pressure and 40 percent in volume, compared to current commercial latex formulations.

Those are very good numbers, and since the new material requires less latex per unit, the initiative could potentially result in condoms that are not only stronger and thinner, but significantly less expensive. The breakthrough could also provide thinner surgical gloves for doctors and medical workers.

An interesting final note: Spinifex grass resin has long been used by Aboriginal Australians as a natural adhesive for tools and weapons. The university has signed an agreement with a local Aboriginal community to ensure it will be involved in the commercialization of the new technology. A production plant for processing spinifex is due to open in Queensland later this year.