For the surprisingly large cohort of men who suffer from erectile dysfunction, every sexual encounter is a potentially embarrassing disaster. Viagra doesn’t always help, and having to use an inflatable pump can be a mood killer. But thanks to the work of a University of Wisconsin urologist with a knack for metal manipulation, turning up the heat in the bedroom could soon be as easy as, well, turning up the heat in your pants.

Urologist Brian Le, Ph.D., who has a background in materials science, knew that exposing the nickel-titanium alloy Nitinol to heat would activate it, causing it to expand. Better still, Nitinol is a memory metal, meaning that it “remembers” the shape and size it first expands to when activated by heat, so it resumes the same form whenever it’s subsequently exposed to high temperatures. To Le, Nitinol seemed like the perfect material to use for producing erections in men who could no longer make them on their own.

Publishing his team’s research in the journal Urology, Le reports that he’s successfully created a thin, cylindrical implant with a Nitinol exoskeleton that’s flaccid at body temperature but stiffens to an erect, predetermined shape when it’s exposed to heat. He has yet to implant it into a penis, but he’s proven that the mechanics of his creation can deliver what men with erectile dysfunction hope for.

The future of erections involves a pliable core surrounded by a nickel-titanium exoskeleton.
The future of erections involves a pliable core surrounded by a nickel-titanium exoskeleton.

While Le’s metal erection sounds promising, it will inevitably pose one major concern among men already worried about their testicles getting fried by technology: How much heat does this thing require, and where is that heat coming from?

At body temperature, the alloy is flaccid.
At body temperature, the alloy is flaccid.

In the paper, Le’s team selected a temperature of 42 degrees Celsius — about 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit — to activate their implant, explaining that it is “above the normal resting human body temperature and lower than the temperature at which heat pain nociceptors activate.” That heat will eventually be provided by a remote-control device that will heat the alloy by induction as it’s waved over the penis, which in turn will activate the Nitinol, “ratcheting open the alloy prosthesis to expand the penis in length and girth.”

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But it stiffens when things heat up.
But it stiffens when things heat up.

One concern remains: 42 degrees is hot — but not so hot that a person would never encounter them in the real world. It’s possible that a person with this implant entering a desert, hot tub, sauna, or Bikram yoga class might find it hard to stay discreet.

Still, for the 40 percent of men aged 40 to 70 that suffer from some form of erectile dysfunction, Le’s breakthrough presents a very exciting possibility. Boston Scientific, a major medical manufacturing company, has already backed Le’s work, confident that he and his team will work out the kinks. If his research continues as planned, Le hopes his implant will be on the market in five to ten years.

Photos via Le et al./Urology