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Fascinating facts about Stephanie Kwolek
inventor of Kevlar
® in 1965.
Stephanie Kwolek
Inventor: Stephanie Louise Kwolek
Portrait of Stephanie Kwolek courtesy E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company
Criteria: First to invent. First to patent.
Birth: July 31,1923 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania
   
Nationality: American
Relying on experience and instinct, Stephanie Kwolek invented one of the modern world's most readily recognized and widely used materials: Kevlar®.

Born in New Kensington, Pennsylvania in 1923, Kwolek was interested in science and medicine as a child. She attended the women's college of what is now Carnegie Mellon University in nearby Pittsburgh, and earned a BS in Chemistry (1946); then, lacking the funds for medical school, she took a research position with DuPont's textile fibers laboratory in Buffalo, New York.

Kwolek worked with great determination, because she loved the work, but also because she did not want to lose her laboratory position, as many women did, when World War II ended. She soon earned a transfer to DuPont's Pioneering Research Laboratory in Wilmington, Delaware, when it opened in 1950. Here, with the support of W. Hale Charch, the first Director of the Lab, Kwolek has a string of successes in the search for new and better polymers.

Kwolek specialized in low-temperature processes for the preparation of condensation polymers: that is, the creation of long molecule chains at low temperatures, resulting in petroleum-based synthetic fibers of tremendous rigidity and strength. In the 1960s, she discovered an entirely new branch of synthetics, liquid crystalline polymers, and prepared the first pure monomers used to synthesize polybenzamide.

But Kwolek was also interested in the intermediates necessary for this process of synthesis, which, being ultra-sensitive to moisture and heat, too easily underwent hydrolysis and self-polymerization. So she discovered an acceptable solvent and created appropriate low-temperature polymerization conditions for these intermediates. The result was an aramid polymer that most researchers would have rejected, since it was fluid and cloudy, rather than viscous and clear. Kwolek, acting on instinct, insisted on spinning out the solution, and the result was astonishing: synthetic fibers much stiffer and stronger than any created before.

DuPont put its Pioneering Lab to work finding a viable commercial version of Kwolek's new crystalline polymers, the potential applications for which were obvious. The result was Kevlar® (first marketed in 1971), a fiber five times stronger once for ounce than steel, but about half the density of fiberglass. Kevlar® is best known to the public as the material from the which bulletproof vests are made; and in this use alone Kwolek's discovery has saved thousands of lives. In fact, Kevlar® has dozens of important applications, including radial tires and brake pads (a replacement for asbestos), racing sails, fiberoptic cable, water-, air- and spacecraft shells, and mooring and suspension bridge cables. It is now used to make skis, safety helmets, and hiking and camping gear. In commercial terms, Kevlar® generates sales of hundreds of millions of dollars per year worldwide.

Stephanie Kwolek spearheaded polymer research at DuPont's Pioneering Lab until her retirement, as Research Associate, in 1986. She is recipient or co-recipient of 17 US patents, including one for the spinning method that made commercial aramid fibers feasible, and 5 for the prototype from which Kevlar® was created. Kwolek continues to consult part-time for DuPont, where she is also known and respected as a mentor to young scientists---especially women.

Kwolek has received numerous awards, including the Kilby Award and the National Medal of Technology. Most recently, in recognition of her own pioneering career and her encouragement of the next generation of innovators, Stephanie Kwolek won the 1999 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award.

TO LEARN MORE

RELATED INFORMATION:
Invention of Kevlar®    from The Great Idea Finder
Women Inventors, A Class Act  from The Great Idea Finder

ON THE BOOKSHELF:
Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women
by Catherine Thimmesh, Melissa Sweet (Ill) / Hardcover - 64 pages (2000) / Houghton Mifflin

A dozen women are profiled in this collection of short, anecdotal biographies demonstrating that necessity, ingenuity, and luck all play a part in successful inventions. The final section tells girls how to patent their inventions, and an informed bibliography will do just that.
Feminine Ingenuity: How Women Inventors Changed America
by Anne L. MacDonald / Paperback - 540 pages (March 1994) / Ballantine Books
A sprightly, informative chronicle of women inventors in America--a two-steps- forward and one and a half steps back history that aptly mirrors the rise and fall of feminist movements over two centuries.
Women Inventors: Two Centuries of Discoveries That Have Shaped Our World
by Susan Casey / Paperback - 144 pages (October 1997) / Chicago Review Press
These inspiring stories of women inventors take the reader on a step-by-step journey through the
process of inventing.
Women Inventors & Their Discoveries
by Ethlie Ann Vare, Greg Ptacek (Contributor) / Hardcover (March 1993) / Oliver Pr
Interesting facts about 10 obscure American women who invented famous things fill the pages of this very readable book. Each informative chapter is devoted to the life of one remarkable woman.

ON THE SCREEN:
Bulletproof
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00 / Also VHS
A bullet travels up to 3,000 feet per second. So how can it be stopped? Surprisingly, there are many answers to this question.

Du Ponts: America's Wealthiest Family
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / Biography Channel / Less than $25.00 / Also VHS
Learn of the family credo that says a du Pont's name should only appear in the paper when they are born, married or die! In rare interviews, family members including former Delaware Governor Pierre du Pont IV offer an inside view of life in America's richest family.


ON THE WEB:

Invention Dimension - Inventor of the Week
Celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards to inspire a new generation of American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Featured Stephanie Kwolek for her invention of Kevlar®..
(URL: web.mit.edu/invent/iow/kwolek.html))
National Inventors Hall of Fame
Located at Inventure Place, the online home of creative minds.Industed Stephanie Kwolek for her invention, Optically Anisotropic Aromatic Polyamide Dopes and Oriented Fibers Therefrom Kevlar. Patent Number 3,819,58.
(URL: ww.invent.org/hall_of_fame/90.html)
Kwolek at Du Pont
Stephanie L. Kwolek developed the first liquid crystal polymer which provided the basis for Kevlar® brand fiber. Kwolek earned a degree in chemistry from what is now Carnegie Mellon University. She joined DuPont in 1946, enlisting in the search for polymers and lower temperature condensation processes needed to produce specialty textile fibers. Researchers struggled to develop a stiffer and tougher nylon-related fiber until 1965, when Kwolek broke the deadlock by devising a liquid crystal solution that could be cold-spun.
(URL: heritage.dupont.com/touchpoints/tp_1965/overview.shtml)

Kevlar at Du Pont
Kevlar® is well known as the material in body armor worn by police officers and soldiers. In 1964 Stephanie Kwolek at DuPont’s Pioneering Research Laboratory synthesized an aromatic polymer (one spun with a solvent rather than melt spun) that produced a durable and exceptionally strong fiber.
(URL: heritage.dupont.com/touchpoints/tp_1965-2/overview.shtml)
The "Lady Edisons" --Women Inventors in the 20th Century
From Innovative Lives at the Smithsonian Institution written by J.E. Bedi
(URL: invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/ilives/lecture05.html
)
WITI HALL OF FAME
Stephanie Kwolek inventor of Kevlar was induted in 1996, She is a member of the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemists, Sigma Xi, Phi Kappa Phi and the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia
(URL: www.witi.com/center/witimuseum/halloffame/1996/skwolek.php)


DID YOU KNOW:

  • Kwolek's name appears on 16 patents; she is sole patent holder on seven. She has authored or co-authored 28 scientific publications and presented her work at national and international conferences.
The products® mentioned in this article are DuPont registered trademarks.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type This page revised October 12, 2006.
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