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How Ultra-Thin Condoms Spun From Grass Could Prevent HIV

Condoms made from this native Australian grass would be as thin as a human hair—but as strong as latex
Feb 10, 2016 at 10:30 AM ET
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(Illustration: Tara Jacoby)

Condoms save lives—they help prevent HIV, along with diseases linked to cancer and brain damage. The problem is getting people to use them consistently.

Creating thinner, more comfortable condoms that people are more likely to use, then, is a public health priority. And one team of scientists at Queensland University claims they have the answer—a condom derived from grass, thinner than a human hair but as strong and efficient at stopping STIs and unplanned pregnancy as a conventional latex condom.

“Rather than looking at increasing the strength, companies would be looking to market the thinnest, most satisfying prophylactic possible,” said Queensland professor Darren Martin in a statement. “Late last year we were able to get [the width of the condom] down to about 45 microns…the width of the hair on your head.” Traditional latex condoms typically range from around 50 to 100 microns in thickness.

With STIs and unplanned pregnancies on the rise, it’s outrageous (but not terribly surprising) that only around 60 percent of sexually active high school students reported using a condom the last time they had sex.

It’s gotten so bad, in fact, that Bill Gates recently offered a $100,000 grant to anyone who can create a condom that enhances pleasure, rather than stifles it. But so far the best ideas are  a condom that allegedly tightens during sex and a condom applicator that helps you put it on right. Neither sound like much fun.

Grass condoms may be the answer. The condoms are, of course, not woven purely from grass. Instead, they are essentially latex condoms mixed with nanocellulose—a lightweight, durable material with properties similar to Kevlar. The researchers plan to extract the nanocellulose from spinifex grass, which indigenous communities in Australia have used for millennia to attach spear heads to wooden shafts. Producing nanocellulose from spinifex involves chopping up the grass into a pulp and then forcing it through a very small hole to peel the nanofibers apart from the pulp—a process quite similar to the one used to produce rayon for clothing. The nanocellulose is then suspended in water, where it can be easily mixed with water-based latex.

The result is a latex product so thin that you can barely feel it. Besides creating thinner condoms, the researchers are also exploring the possibility of ultra-thin latex gloves that surgeons could use to better feel their way through an operation. And, at least in theory, a product that blends latex and nanocellulose could help manufacturers save money, further lowering prices. “Because you would also use less latex, your material cost in production would potentially drop as well,” Martin says.

Alas, the grass condoms are not quite ready for prime-time. Even if the Queensland researchers succeed in manufacturing the less rubbery rubber, the FDA classifies condoms as a Class II medical device, which means the paperwork alone would take about six months (and $5,000) to process.

But the idea of using nanotechnology to make a thinner, more comfortable condom is a noble one, and already catching on. Nanocellulose is doubtless a step in the right direction. “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,” Martin says. For lack of a better term, grass-based condoms may be “the Holy Grail” of natural rubber.