Stephanie Kwolek and Kevlar
An inventor of industrial-strength fibers that today protect and save thousands of lives.
In 1965, Stephanie Kwolek made an unexpected discovery that led to the creation of synthetic fibers so strong, not even steel bullets could penetrate them. During her analysis of long molecule chains at low temperatures, Kwolek observed how polyamide molecules line up to form liquid crystalline polymer solutions of exceptional strength and stiffness. That discovery made way for Kwolek’s invention of industrial fibers that today protect and save thousands of lives. Most notable among these is Kevlar®, a heat-resistant material that’s five times stronger than steel, but lighter than fiberglass. Today, Kevlar® is used in hundreds of products, including bulletproof vests, spacecrafts, helmets, tennis racquets, tires, and protective gloves.
Born in New Kensington, PA, Kwolek developed a love of fabrics and sewing from her mother, a homemaker. She also had a strong interest in teaching, chemistry, and especially medicine. After graduating from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College in 1946 with a degree in chemistry, Kwolek applied for a position as a chemist with the DuPont Company, though she still had her eye on medical school.
Fond of the polymer research at DuPont, she abandoned her plans for medical school to become a lifetime chemist. Kwolek specialized in developing low-temperature processes for finding petroleum-based synthetic fibers of incredible strength and rigidity. Assigned to finding the next generation of fibers that could withstand extreme conditions, Kwolek’s work involved preparing intermediates, synthesizing aromatic polyamides of high molecular weight, dissolving the polyamides in solvents, and spinning these solutions into fibers.
Read more about Kwolek’s work at Explore Chemistry.
Excerpted with permission, www.acs.org.