June 22, 2014
Kevlar Creator Stephanie Kwolek Passes Away
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
The American chemist credited with the development of Kevlar fiber, the exceptionally strong material used to create protective vests capable of resisting bullets, has passed away at the age of 90.
Stephanie L. Kwolek, who was working at a DuPont laboratory in 1965 when she discovered the lightweight fiber used in the body armor and protective gear used by law enforcement and military personnel all over the world, died Wednesday in Wilmington, Delaware, Randall Chase of the Associated Press (AP) reported on Friday.
According to the Washington Post’s Emily Langer, Kwolek described her innovative discovery as “a case of serendipity.” She had been asked by her employer to develop a synthetic material that could offer a lighter and more fuel-efficient alternative to automotive tires. Instead, she came across a compound that has been credited with saving thousands of lives.
Kwolek came across a liquid crystalline solution that could be transformed into a number of different, ultra-strong fibers, one of which became Kevlar, Langer said. In addition to bullet-resistant vests, the material is used to make sturdier boats, planes and sports equipment, as well as more protective gear for butchers and lumberjacks, and stronger ropes that are capable of securing larger ships while still being easy for sailors to use.
Her passing was confirmed by executor and former DuPont colleague Rita Vasta, who declined to disclose the cause of death. While her invention proved to be “a windfall” for the company she worked for, earning DuPont several billion dollars in revenue, New York Times reporter Jeremy Pearce noted that Kwolek did not share in the financial benefits, having signed over patent royalties to her employer.
Kwolek, who was born near New Kensington, Pennsylvania on July 31, 1923, graduated with an undergraduate degree in chemistry from what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pearce said. She initially went to work at DuPont’s textile chemistry facility in Buffalo before relocating to the Wilmington laboratory in 1950, where she led polymer research for more than three decades before retiring in 1986.
In 1996, she was presented with the National Medal of Technology for her work on synthetic fibers, and in 2004 she was inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame at the National Plastics Center and Museum in Leominster, Massachusetts. On June 18, the day that Kwolek passed away, DuPont announced that they had sold the one-millionth vest produced using the Kevlar technology that she was largely responsible for.
“Not in a thousand years did I think the discovery of this liquid solution would save thousands of lives,” Kwolek told newspaper reporters in 2003, while US military personnel were still in the midst of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Langer said. “When I watch the war on TV, I take great pride in saying, ‘We at DuPont invented that.’”
“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,” DuPont chief executive Ellen Kullman said in a statement, according to the Guardian. “Her synthesis of the first liquid crystal polymer and the invention of DuPont Kevlar highlighted a distinguished career.”