Above: Dr Sina Naficy and Dr Robert Gorkin with the hydrogel material that has won funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop the next-generation condom. Source: University of Wollongong (Australia)
Did you know? Poly(acrylic) acid, which might be used to make hydrogel condoms, is also used as an absorbent in disposable diapers! Cut open a diaper and look for small, transparent beads inside. In 2014, researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia received a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a hydrogel condom. Unlike their latex counterparts, hydrogel condoms would theoretically be stronger, self-lubricating, and biodegradable, while providing a “barely there” feel. In fact, hydrogels may be the future of safe sex and help reduce HIV infection worldwide.
As their name suggests, hydrogels are gel-like hydrophilic (water-loving) substances. Some everyday items made of hydrogels include contact lenses, dissolvable stitches, and some pharmaceutical capsules. Hydrogels can even be used to help repair your body!
There are many types of hydrogels, each with its own unique characteristics, so selecting the perfect one to use in a next-generation condom will likely take years of trial and error. Researchers will need to take into account many factors, including strength, thickness, and even pH sensitivity.
Did you know? Researchers in Manchester, UK, are developing a condom made of latex and graphene. Made up exclusively of carbon atoms, graphene is incredibly strong despite being only one atom thick.One early candidate is a double network hydrogel, made of two types of polymers instead of just one. In this particular case, combining polyether-based polyurethane and poly(acrylic) acid has the potential to produce a hydrogel condom that is thin, strong, and self-lubricating. Polyether-based polyurethane is flexible at low temperatures and resist tears and abrasions, while poly(acrylic) acid is able to absorb 1000 times its weight in water and is pH sensitive.
Why is pH sensitivity so important for a hydrogel condom? Because to the pH difference between semen (7.1-8.0) and the inside of a vagina (3.8-4.5). In theory, an “intelligent” condom could be engineered to change its thickness and permeability only after ejaculation, when it senses the change in pH, remaining extremely thin until the last possible moment.
It might also be possible to engineer the hydrogel into a mesh-like structure in order to trap bacteria and viruses that cause sexually transmitted infections. In fact, hydrogel condoms may even be able to deliver medicine, such as anti-HIV drugs or treatments for other sexually transmitted diseases.
Did you know? Most condoms are made of latex. However, lambskin, polyurethane, and polyisoprene condoms are available for the latex-sensitive. Because hydrogels are water-based, they can also be engineered to biodegrade, which would help keep hydrogel condoms from accumulating in landfills. So they will be “barely there” in more ways than one.
With hydrogel condoms, the possibilities almost seem endless. The news that these environmentally-friendly next-generation prophylactics may be able transform themselves at the moment of ejaculation and even deliver medicine might even make you forget that their basic characteristics—thin, strong, self-lubricating—should encourage condom use and help stop the spread of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
UOW Researchers Win Gates Foundation Grant to Make Next Generation Condoms (2014)
University of Wollongong
A press release with information on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant to Dr Robert Gorkin’s research team and on the team's research into hydrogel condoms.
Everything You Wanted to Know About Hydrogels But Were Afraid to Ask (2014)
University of Wollongong
A PDF document providing a general introduction to hydrogels with links to videos and other online resources.
A Guide to Thermoplastic Polyurethanes (TPU) (2014)
A PDF document proving an introduction to TPU, including their physical properties, chemical properties and chemical resistance. Published by Huntsman Corporation, a US-based chemical manufacturer.
Polymers: Poly(propenoic acid) (Polyacrylic acid) (2013)
The Essential Chemical Industry, Centre for Industry Education Collaboration (CIEC), University of York (UK)
A brief introduction to the production and uses of poly(propenoic acid).
What Are The Types Of Condoms? (2013)
Cynthia Myers, Livestrong.com
An overview of the different types of condoms and their materials.
S. Naficy, G. M. Spinks and G. G. Wallace. (2014). Thin, Tough, pH-Sensitive Hydrogel Films with Rapid Load Recovery. ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces 6(6), 4109-4114.
An article on hydrogels similar to those being studied for use in hydrogel condoms. An abstract is available on the publisher’s website. However, a subscription is required to view the full text.