By 2013, the condom situation had become so dire that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offered a $100,000 grant to researchers who could create a safe but pleasurable condom, with the prospect of a follow-up grant worth up to $1 million. Four years after awarding the initial grant to 11 projects, we’re still waiting for the condom of the future.
Perhaps there’s room for another applicant? A group of scientists from MIT has announced the creation a new system of “hydrogel laminates”: a soft, strong, slippery material that could revolutionize condoms and other medical equipment. In a report published this week in Advanced Health Care Materials, the researchers describe a new technique of bonding hydrogels and elastomers to make this new material.
Thanks to their unique properties as coatings, hydrogels have become a hot topic in the materials engineering community. On its own, a hydrogel is a stretchy, rubbery material that is over 90 percent water. It’s very permeable, meaning that small molecules can easily pass through it.
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But when coated onto both sides of an elastomer (a rubbery material) the two layers form a product that is at once both comfortable and impermeable. Even better, the hydrogel surface can be embedded with different compounds that can change the properties of the object it coats. For example, the MIT authors noted in a press release that the hydrogel surface on a condom could be imbued with medication that counters a latex allergy — a common complaint with typical latex condoms.
And as far as comfort goes, the hydrogel is naturally very slippery and low-friction, functioning kind of like an ultra-lubricant.
The researchers, lead by Xuanhe Zhao, an associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering at MIT, also tested the hydrogel-elastomer combination on a variety of other medical devices.
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They found it could be particularly helpful for coating catheters, which can be stiff, uncomfortable, and prone to infection. A catheter created from a hydrogel laminate might be more easily inserted, the scientists hypothesized, and could be embedded with infection-fighting medication. They put each device through a battery of tests, but the hydrogel lamination stayed strong and did not crack.
“We think this has the potential to be applied to a diverse range of medical devices interfacing with the body,” Zhao said in a statement.
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