Analysis of laboratory nitrile gloves: From pores to the surface

The humble rubber glove is usually the first line of protection for any person working with toxic, hazardous and contagious materials or environments. This is especially true in the ongoing COVID-19 virus pandemic. While everyone agrees on their universal use, very little attention is paid to the type of material, surface topography or pore size distribution of the glove itself. Here we describe an approach where the use of multiple techniques has enabled a complete physical characterization of the rubber glove material. This approach not only applies to nitrile gloves but can also be used for analysis of any rubber material, polymer coatings, thin elastomeric films, porous membranes or flat, flexible sheets.

Introduction

Disposable rubber gloves are routinely used for maintaining personal hygiene, prevent contamination and enable the wearer to work safely in a toxic/hazardous environment. Rubber latex is a crosslinked polymer with a tensile strength in the 25-40 MPa range, with a typical elastic elongation of 800-900 %.[1] Nitrile gloves are usually of lower tensile strength than latex but their elastic modulus is typically higher. Gloves can be ordered in a variety of different types, thicknesses, finished textures and colors.

The global demand for gloves is estimated to be $ 2.3 billion USD in 2020 alone and is expected to grow steadily throughout 2027.[2] Physical analysis of flexible materials like rubber and related materials is generally performed by tensile testing, IR spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction while surface characterization is performed by optical/fluorescence microscopy, SEM, TEM etc. The most important assessment of the quality of rubber gloves is their leakage or barrier properties to solvents, chemicals, and biological agents (bacteria, virus, pathogens). It is well known that vinyl gloves are more susceptible to leakage of biological material (e.g. viruses) compared to nitrile or latex gloves.[3-6]

In this study, we demonstrate a new, holistic way to characterize surfaces of flexible rubber materials like nitrile gloves using a nm to cm scale analysis approach. This approach makes use of multiple measurement techniques like gas physisoption (nmscale), atomic force microscopy (AFM, µm-scale) and pycnometry for density measurement which affects the glove properties at the cm scale. This approach has the following benefits:

a) provides a complete analysis picture of the material,

b) demonstrates the use of multiple techniques (instruments) in the Anton Paar product portfolio and

c) enables customers to use multiple techniques for getting a complete picture of the rubber glove surface. 

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