Researchers at the University of Queensland, Australia, have discovered a substance derived from a native grass that makes it possible to manufacture ultra-thin condoms without sacrificing strength and durability.
The substance, derived from Australia’s native spinifex grass, is a nanocellulose which can be added to latex to make stronger but thinner condoms, according to the researchers at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN).
Working with native tribes who use the grass traditionally for a variety of purposes, the researchers developed a method for extracting the nanocellulose from spinifex grass.
According to Professor Darren Martin, who led the research team, spinifex is a “super tough plant and it has evolved to survive under incredibly hot conditions. [The plant has] a very open structure and you can break the thing apart very easily into these long nanofibres that have really tough properties and look to be really useful for a whole number of things.”
“We can make a stronger and thinner membrane that is supple and flexible, which is the holy grail for natural rubber,” he added.
Martin said details of the study will be published later in the year.
The team has produced latex-spinifex condom that is only about 45 microns thick, about as thick as a human hair.
The condoms were tested successfully in the U.S. late last year. Tests conducted included a burst test in which the condoms were inflated to test their durability. The test obtained a performance increase of about 20 percent in pressure and 40 percent in volume compared with ordinary latex condoms.
The team hopes to produce 30 percent thinner condoms that would still be tougher than ordinary latex condoms. Besides the advantage of greater satisfaction to male users, thinner condoms made from latex with spinifex nanocellulose added will be cheaper to produce because they will need less latex material.
“With a little more refinement, we think we can engineer a latex condom that’s about 30 percent thinner, and will still pass all standards, and with more process optimization work we will be able to make devices even thinner than this,” Martin said.
“With more process optimization work, we will be able to make devices even thinner than this.”
The team obtained nanocellulose from spinifex grass with the help of the indigenous Indjalandji-Dhidhanu people of the Camooweal region of north-west Queensland who use spinifex grass resin traditionally as an adhesive.
“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.”
Cellulose, Earth’s most abundant organic polymer, is an organic substance that is a major structural component of the cell wall of plants and some forms of algae. It is used in the manufacture of paper, cellophane and rayon.
Ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep and goats are able to digest cellulose with the help of symbiont microbes in their guts. But in monogastric animals such as humans it adds bulk to feces as “dietary fiber” believed to promote gut health.
Nanocellulose is nano-structured cellulose, that is, cellulose with ultra-thin fibers about a billionth of a meter (nanometer) in width. Because of potential use in industry due to their strength and light weight, they have been the focus of research in recent years for making paper, medical dressings and other absorbent products, composite, low calorie replacement for carbohydrate additives and cleaning up oil spills.
The Australian researchers say that besides use in making ultra-thin condoms, spinifex nanocellulose could also be used to produce thinner latex gloves that allow surgeons to make better use of their natural sense of touch during surgery.
The researchers say they are also considering other uses such as making natural carbon fiber and lighter body panels for electric cars.
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