Graphene: The wonder material being used to create thinner, stronger condoms and help fight spread of Aids

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation help fund development of the new material to promote condom use and stop the spread of HIV

It's a "wonder" material with "limitless" potential and now a team of scientists is set to use graphene to develop a thinner, stronger, safer and more enjoyable condom.

The team of researchers at the University of Manchester received a grant of $100,000 on Wednesday from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop new composite nano-materials for the next generation of condoms which could help stop the spread of HIV and Aids. The announcement of the grant came on the same day as a British company among the leaders in the race to scale-up manufacture of graphene was floated on the London Stock Exchange for £36.4m.

The material, which is almost a million times thinner than a human hair and harder than diamond, was first isolated by Russian scientists Sir Andre Geim and Sir Kostya Novoselov at the university in 2004.

Since then it has led to more than 7,500 graphene–based patents worldwide for everything from smartphones to computer chips. It also earned the two scientists the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010. However a new report has described Britain’s efforts at commercialising the material as “woeful” despite it being a flagship government policy.

Now a team led by Dr Aravind Vijayaraghavan at the newly established National Graphene Institute at Manchester University is to carry out research to develop the technology to make composite condoms that are more desirable to use. To do this they intend to create a composite by mixing graphene with an elastic polymer, such as latex which is traditionally used in condoms.

“This composite material will be tailored to enhance the natural sensation during intercourse while using a condom, which should encourage and promote condom use,” said Dr Vijayaraghavan. “This will be achieved by combining the strength of graphene with the elasticity of latex to produce a new material which can be thinner, stronger, more stretchy, safer and, perhaps most importantly, more pleasurable.“

He added: ”Since its isolation in 2004, people have wondered when graphene will be used in our daily life. Currently, people imagine using graphene in mobile-phone screens, food packaging and chemical sensors…If this project is successful, we might have a use for graphene which will literally touch our everyday life in the most intimate way.”

Further reading:

* A journey to the heart of Africa’s Aids epidemic

* The condom conundrum: how to persuade Africa's prostitutes to practice safe sex

* Hope for the future as Malawi battles the Aids virus's capacity to infect succeeding generations  

Applied Graphene Materials (AGM), a Durham University spin-out looking to tap into the potential of graphene, floated on a sub-market of the London Stock Exchange on Wednesday and was valued at £36.4m after investors jumped to cash in on the emerging technology.

In a statement prior to the firm’s floatation its chief executive Jon Mabbitt said the listing would help expand capacity at its Durham plant from one ton to eight tons of grapheme per year. He added that “household names” including Proctor & Gamble and Dyson were partner organisation in the research and other firms were interested in its production.

Water purification is among graphene’s potential global uses (Getty) Water purification is among graphene’s potential global uses (Getty)
Graphene could also be used to create batteries that charge in seconds and AGM is one of the global leaders in the technology to scale-up the manufacture of the material.

However Dr Helen Meese, head of materials at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers warned that “despite the UK being at the very forefront of graphene research, the country’s commercialisation of the material has been woeful.”

In 2011 Chancellor George Osborne announced a £50m national research programme for grapheme and a National Graphene Institute to harness its commercial power, however according to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers there have only been 54 graphene-based patents filed in the UK. This is less than 1 per cent of the global total and far fewer than the 2,200 held by firms in China and the 1,754 by firms in South Korea.

Dr Meese added: “The graphene community has to agree on a timescale for commercialisation now and develop a clear road map for on-going research and development.  The UK must also establish how it intends to compete in terms of market share and mass production.”

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