Obituary: Kevlar inventor Stephanie Kwolek

By Bill Bregar
Senior Staff Reporter

Published: June 20, 2014 11:55 am ET
Updated: June 20, 2014 2:25 pm ET

Image By: DuPont Co. Stephanie Kwolek and her invention, Kevlar, have been credited with saving countless lives.

Related to this story

Topics Materials, Materials Suppliers, Obituaries
Companies & Associations DuPont Co.

Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar — the aramid-fiber body armor that has saved countless lives of soldiers, police and other safety personnel — died June 18, following a brief illness. She was 90.

A low-key industrial chemist at DuPont Co. who achieved international fame, Kwolek discovered Kevlar in the mid-1960s. DuPont commercialized it in 1971. Kevlar most famously goes into bulletproof vests, but it also is used to make super-strong rope, protective gloves for meatpackers, fiber-optic cables and as a reinforcement for composites used in a host of products.

Kwolek was inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame in 1997 — she is still the only woman in the hall today. That same year, she received the prestigious Perkin Medal from the Society of Chemical Industry’s American Section. Kwolek entered the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995. She also is a member of the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame. In 1996, she received the National Medal of Technology in a White House ceremony. 

Kevlar aramid fibers are, by weight, five times stronger than steel.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police reports that more than 3,100 law enforcement officers have been inducted into the IADP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors’ Club. The organization documents when a bulletproof vest saves a life. Many of these survivors met Kwolek and poured out their emotions and thanks. She signed many of their Kevlar vests.

She also starred in DuPont advertisements.

But Kwolek did her work quietly, in the laboratory. She had joined DuPont in 1946. DuPont already was a well-known fiber innovator thanks to nylon, Dacron polyester and Lycra spandex when Kwolek began her work leading to Kevlar. At first, the researchers wanted to develop a lightweight fiber for tires that would boost gas mileage in cars, she recalled in a Plastics News profile when she entered the Plastics Hall of Fame.

Kwolek was trying to find a good solution for spinning the fibers. She hit on dissolving PBA in amide/salt solvents. She described the details of invention in a 1993 speech: “The solution was unusually (low viscosity), turbid, stir-opalescent and buttermilk in appearance. Conventional polymer solutions are usually clear or translucent and have the viscosity of molasses, more or less. The solution that I prepared looked like a dispersion but was totally filterable through a fine pore filter. This was a liquid crystalline solution, but I did now know it at the time.”

The researchers were surprised when the fibers appeared to be super-strong. “Lest a mistake had been made, I did not report these unexpected results until I had the fibers retested several times,” she said.

Kwolek learned that the fibers could be made even stronger by heat-treating them. The polymer molecules, shaped like rods or matchsticks, are highly oriented, which gives Kevlar its extraordinary strength.

Kwolek gave frequent talks to students, encouraging them to get into science. Tire-makers eventually adopted cheaper steel-belted radials, deciding against Kwolek’s invention.

Kevlar went onto greater fame: Stopping bullets and saving lives.

Kwolek was “exceptional”, said Jay Gardiner, president of the Plastics Academy, which administers the Plastics Hall of Fame. Kevlar is an example of a super-tough material that shows the public that plastics are far more than “cheap” and disposable, he said.

DuPont Chairman and CEO Ellen Kullman said in a statement: “We are all saddened at the passing of DuPont scientist Stephanie Kwolek, a creative and determined chemist and a true pioneer for women in science. … She leaves a wonderful legacy of thousands of lives saved and countless injuries prevented by products made possible by her discovery.”

Kwolek spoke about her life and work in this 2013 video from the Museum of Science in Boston.


Comments

Obituary: Kevlar inventor Stephanie Kwolek

By Bill Bregar
Senior Staff Reporter

Published: June 20, 2014 11:55 am ET
Updated: June 20, 2014 2:25 pm ET

Post Your Comments


Back to story


More stories

Image

Styrolution will open new production late 2014

July 30, 2014 12:54 pm ET

Germany-based styrenic materials group, Styrolution, has announced it is expanding its facility in Ludwigshafen, Germany.    More

Unipex Group buys Ferguson Chemical Innovation

July 29, 2014 1:57 pm ET

Chemical distributor Unipex Group Inc. announced July 29 that it had purchased Ferguson Chemical Innovation, a Brampton, Ontario-based supplier of...    More

Image

Obituary: Andrew 'A.J.' Janosko

July 29, 2014 12:14 pm ET

WASHINGTON — Andrew “A.J.” Janosko, the former director of trade show operations for the Society of Plastics Industry Inc., died on ...    More

Image

Carbon black supplier Orion begins trading on NYSE

July 29, 2014 11:29 am ET

Orion Engineered Carbons S.a.r.l. has priced the initial public offering of 19.5 million common shares at a price to the public of $18 per share.    More

Image

Dow sees solid second quarter performance

July 29, 2014 11:19 am ET

Dow Chemical Co. has reported its second quarter figures, with its seventh consecutive quarter of growth, according to the company.
More

Market Reports

Pipe, Profile & Tubing Extrusion in North America 2014

U.S. demand for extruded plastics is expected to grow by 3 percent in 2014, with PVC remaining the largest segment.

Plastic pipe will post the strongest gains through 2018, continuing to take market share from competing materials in a range of markets.

Our latest market report provides in-depth analysis of current trends and their financial impact on the pipe, profile and tubing extrusion industry in North America.

Learn more

2014 Injection Molding Industry Report

GROWTH, OPPORTUNITY IN SIGHT FOR INJECTION MOLDERS IN 2014

In the wake of the economic turbulence earlier in this decade, molders today find themselves in much better shape. Molders are gaining a competitive advantage by investing in people, equipment and seeking inroads into new markets on a global scale.

Growth in the injection molding industry is going to be driven by low financing costs and a continued move to reshore some business.

Learn more

Shale Gas Market - Analysis of North American Region

This report highlights the impact of shale-based natural gas on the North American plastics market and features an in-depth analysis of production trends in the United States during 2013 and a forecast for 2014 and beyond.

Learn more

Upcoming Plastics News Events

September 10, 2014 - September 12, 2014Plastics Caps & Closures 2014

January 14, 2015 - January 14, 2015Plastics in Automotive

February 4, 2015 - February 6, 2015Plastics News Executive Forum 2015

More Events