Condoms might be one of the best prophylactics out there, but it's actually pretty difficult to get men to use them because, in short, they don't feel nearly as good as nothing at all - and that's a given, considering that all a condom really does is create a barrier between the wearer and their partner. So condoms need to get thinner and thinner to make sex feel more natural, and Australian native spinifex grass could help us get there.
Researchers from the University of Queensland say they've found a way to use the nano-fibres from spinifex grass to make condoms that are 45 microns thick - about as thick as a human hair - and still adhere to all of the same standards required for thicker, traditional condoms.
"On average [we] got a performance increase of 20 percent in pressure and 40 percent in volume compared to the commercial latex control sample," said one of the researchers, Darren Martin. "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. With more process optimisation work, we will be able to make devices even thinner than this."
To make these new condoms, the team developed a way to extract nanocellulose from the grass, which grows primarily in remote areas of Australia. To do so, they chopped up harvested spinifex grass with sodium hydroxide to produce a pulp, in much the same way as paper is made. Then, they suspended the nano-fibres in a watery solution, allowing them to eventually mix the fibres into latex - the type of rubber that traditional condoms are made of.
Once added to latex, they found that the nanocellulose dramatically improved the substance's performance, allowing them to create ultra-thin latex sheets that remain just as strong as their thicker counterparts. Basically, the tiny grass fibres add an extra layer of strength and durability to latex the same way steel rods reinforce concrete.
"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," said Martin.
The team says that with more research they will achieve an even thinner latex, which will hopefully get more men to use condoms to protect themselves and their partners from STDs. Besides the obvious health benefits, the condoms just might give rise to a whole new industry in some remote areas of Australia where they will harvest this tough native grass for use in other technologies.