The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded a grant to an Australian research team trying to build a better condom. They’re hardly the first to win such an award, but they have a novel approach. These polymer scientists are making condoms out of hydrogels, the same materials used in contact lenses.
It’s actually a brilliant idea. Not only are hydrogels biodegradable and self-lubricating, they’re also impossibly strong (see below) and engineered to feel just like human skin. Hydrogels are so lifelike that they’re actually being developed for use in artificial muscle and implantable bionics. The Australian team, in fact, is also working on that type of research.
For the specific purpose of the Gates Foundation’s goals, hydrogels make great sense. In contrast with some of the other interesting but perhaps not exactly viable materials being studied for use in condoms—looking at you Team Cow Tendon—hydrogels are already widely used in everything from medicine to food production. Hydrogels have also been on the forefront of HIV-prevention efforts for about a decade. This gives the scientists hope that they’ll not only be able to build a better condom, but also get it in the hands of those who need it most.
Of course, no one will really know if this condom is good enough to get non-condom-wearers to use it—until they get a, erm, hands-on demo. The idea sounds great, and the condom looks like a condom. But how does it really feel?