Development of the “wonder condom” underway

Kate O’Loughlin


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a group of scientists at the National Graphene Institute in Manchester, UK, $100,000 (¤73,000) to create a super thin and strong condom from the “wonder material” that is graphene.

Graphene is incredibly thin and light, allowing only the smallest molecules (like water) to pass through it. Graphene also happens to be the most thermally conductive solid material in the world, meaning it would almost feel as though you were wearing nothing at all. A pure graphene condom would be incredibly strong but completely transparent and potentially only one atom thick.

In lieu of such difficulties the National Graphene Institute are working on developing a material made of graphene and latex which would combine the strength and lightness of graphene but still be easy and convenient to use.

The Gates Foundation awarded eleven grants of $100,000 each to eleven condom research groups to create “a Next Generation Condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use.” The projects that prove promising also stand to gain another $1m (€730,000) from the foundation.

The aim of this research is to make men more likely to use condoms by removing their main problems. Conventional condoms are often considered awkward and ungainly, as well as reducing sensitivity and interrupting the moment. Condoms are currently the most popular way to protect against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Creating a safer condom that is less likely to break and is easier to use but also enhances pleasure could change the male perception of them worldwide and encourage their use. Dr Papa Salif Sow, Senior Program Officer on the HIV team at the foundation, said a “redesigned condom that overcomes inconvenience, fumbling or perceived loss of pleasure would be a powerful weapon in the fight against poverty”.

Graphene was first produced in The University of Manchester in 2004 by Prof Andre Geim and Prof Kostya Novoselov by taking a piece of graphite and dissecting it layer by layer until only one single layer remained. The material is currently imagined for use in electronics like mobile phone screens and computer chips. However, due to its unique properties it is a strong candidate for other applications such as water filtration and anti-corrosion coatings. Aside from small-scale condom production, graphene and its composites could allow for the creation of lighter vehicles and buildings and to possibly replace silicone in electrical systems.

Other winners of the grant include the creators of Rapidom – a condom with easy-hold grips that could be applied with one easy action. Another team is working on a polyurethane version that has shape memory and is self-heating which would have a snug fit and anti-STD antimicrobial nanoparticles that would help to further reduce risk of infection. Some researcher are moving away from latex altogether including a group from San Diego called Apex Medical Technologies who are looking into the use of cow tendons or fish derivatives.

While the commercial market for these condoms is large, their benefit in developing countries – where condom use is less popular – is potentially huge. The knowledge of the epidemiology of STDs in the developing world has increased markedly in the last twenty years however the problem is still huge. There is a strong like between STDs and the sexual transmission of the HIV infection. Having an untreated STD can increase the acquisition and transmission of HIV by a factor of 10. In developing countries STDs and their complications, even omitting HIV, rank among the top five disease categories for which adults require healthcare. With condoms that already contained anti-STD microbial nanoparticles, or stronger and easier to use condoms, the struggle would get a little easier. If these new condoms are kept affordable, their distribution across areas like sub-Saharan Africa – the region with greatest HIV prevalence – could be kept up by agencies such as UNAIDS and UNFPA. By sharing these designs, countries like Brazil, China and India, which are self-sufficient in condom production, could create their own, having a great impact in those countries not receiving as much aid.

There is no timeline on the creation of these graphene condoms. The National Graphene Institute is set to open in 2015, so it will be at least a few years. One issue with these graphene condoms, and indeed the other applicants, is their price. Graphene is currently quite expensive but it is hoped mass production would bring down the price dramatically. Gates also hopes the initiative will incite competitors. If at least one of these ventures is successful, sex may well become a much more pleasurable act while the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases is reduced.