There’s a grass that grows in Australia which covers about 30 percent of the continent, roughly three times the size of Texas. Called spinifex, the plant’s unique cell structure contains a high amount of hemicellulose, the non-stiff part of the cell wall, which allows it to maintain flexibility in extreme heat so it doesn’t crack and release all its water.
Some indigenous communities in Australia have long known spinifex has useful applications and properties. And today, in a press release, researchers from the University of Queensland announced that spinifex has what they believe to be profound implications for the future of latex condom manufacturing. They claim fibers from the grass can improve latex to make condoms as thin as a human hair without any loss in strength.
Because of spinifex’s structure, the researchers discovered that the plant’s long, thin nanofibers are easy to extract and suspend really nicely in water. “So one of the first things we thought was: we have to put these things into rubber,” says lead researcher professor Darren Martin. “One of the holy grails of rubber is to be able to throw an additive in without making it stiff.”
What followed was the development of a spinifex nanocellulose additive to a latex base. The researchers said early testing of the formula on a commercial dipping line in Cleveland — including burst tests that inflate condoms and measure the volume and pressure — got a performance increase of 20 percent in pressure and 40 percent in volume (on average) compared to the commercial latex control sample.
Of course, there are latex condoms on the market “as thin as a hair,” or roughly 45 microns thick, already. According Dr. Aravind Vijayaraghavan, lead researcher of the University of Manchester’s Bill Gates-funded quest for the ultimate condom, latex condoms currently range from 40 to 80 microns in thickness. “The important claim they make is the improvement in burst volume,” Dr. Vijayaraghavan wrote in an email. “But it’s not clear how this would translate to 30 percent thickness reduction….It would certainly make a big impact on condoms if the thickness is reduced by 30 percent without loss of strength or elasticity.”
Without published results, Vijayaraghavan says, it’s impossible to verify the claim.
Meanwhile, Martin and his associates are looking to partner with leading condom manufacturers to license and develop their patented technology. Because the advancement of spinifex knowledge grew from a research partnership with Aboriginal traditional owners of the Camooweal region in north-west Queensland, the Indjalandji-Dhidhanu People, UQ and the Dugalunji Aboriginal Corporation have signed an agreement to recognize local Aboriginal traditional owners’ knowledge and ensure that they will have ongoing equity in the commercialization of the nanocellulose technology.
While spinifex has been around for roughly 20 million years, Martin and his team have only been working on its nanocellulose’s applications to latex for about a year. Which, he notes, is not a long time for science. “Our ambition within the next 12 months is to get down to the world’s thinnest,” he says. “We think our nanofibers will allow us to do that. We don’t think there’s anything else out there on the market that will be as good.”