Graphene has begun to draw attention as a revolutionary substance with a wide array of uses, but recent focus has been its potential in one of the world’s oldest applications. Condoms in the near future may contain graphene as a key ingredient.
Discovered by Sirs Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in 2004, graphene is a lattice of pure carbon that has tremendous elasticity and ideal conductive properties despite having a thickness of only a single atom. Scientists immediately recognized the find as a fundamental breakthrough, but graphene’s gossamer sheerness rendered it susceptible to damage. However, researchers at the University of Manchester are nearing publication of a study that establishes the mechanisms by which holes in the carbon lattice self-heal in the presence of metal ions, hydrocarbons, and free carbon atoms.
It did not take long for billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates to stand up and take notice of the study’s implications. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which concerns itself with third-world health issues, immediately apprised the benefit of a strong condom that seals its own holes. The charity awarded $100,000 to the University of Manchester to aid in the pursuit of a prophylactic that would help stop the spread of HIV in poor countries.
On the heels of this vote of confidence, The University of Manchester has announced plans to open a new facility to house the National Graphene Institute in Manchester, UK. The four-story structure will be comprised of offices and specialized laboratories dedicated to expanding the knowledge and use of its titular material. The University expects to go live with the site early in 2015, when it will begin focusing on graphene and the key role it might play in the future as an ingredient in condoms.
The project is sponsored largely through a 23-million-pound grant from the European Regional Development Fund, representing the one of the organization’s largest investments to date. Although the facility will only be staffed by approximately 100 people, the industrial innovations that precipitate from their efforts are expected to have an immeasurable effect on global industry.
Dr. Aravind Vijayaraghavan heads the team of scientists that is tasked with integrating the substance into a new species of condom. They intend to search for a means to combine graphene with traditional polymers, such as latex or polyurethane. The team expects to get results relatively quickly; a great advantage to graphene is that it is biologically nonreactive – meaning that it cannot cause allergies, cancer, or any other ill effects – and so new products are likely to sail through reviews by regulatory bodies and public health agencies.
Epidemiologists expect any enhanced breed of condom to be eagerly embraced by the public. By all reports, scientists are working to eliminate the primary deterrent that has historically hampered regular condom use – namely, loss of sensation. Dr. Vijayaraghavan believes that prophylactic use will increase, and negative outcomes decrease, if his group can invent a condom that is “thinner, stronger, more stretchy, safer, and, perhaps most importantly, more pleasurable.”
The medical, scientific, and philanthropic communities are enthused about the possibilities represented by the momentum of recent research. But one important question about the future of condoms remains: if graphene is the key ingredient, will the world still call them “rubbers”?
By Daniel Annear
University of Manchester