Kevlar® Dare Bigger™ Moments: Inspired by Stephanie Kwolek
Through the 50 years since Stephanie Kwolek made her discoveries at the DuPont Experimental Station that led to the invention of DuPont™ Kevlar®, many students across the globe have seen her as a role model and been inspired to use her story as a basis for academic research. Joel Westfahl, who submitted the following story, is an example.
Submitted by Joel J. Westfahl, CPA, CFP®
While taking an introductory chemistry class in 2014 at the State College of Florida, I chose Ms. Stephanie L. Kwolek and her discovery of the fiber used in DuPont™ Kevlar® as the topic for my required laboratory class presentation.
I learned of Ms. Kwolek while reading a July 2014 obituary about her in Time that included her picture, to the left, wearing DuPont™ Kevlar® ‘Ove’ Gloves. The obituary described her discovery of the synthetic fiber used in DuPont™ Kevlar® and provided examples of how this fiber, which is pound for pound about five times as strong as steel, lightweight, and does well in high heat, has improved many products and saved countless lives.[i]
Ms. Kwolek recounted the invention of the fiber used in DuPont™ Kevlar®: “It was 1965 and I was assigned to look for this super strong, super stiff, but lightweight fiber. In the course of that work I made a discovery. The results came back. It was very strong and very stiff, unlike anything we had made before. I hesitated about telling anyone, because it was unusual and I didn’t want to be foolish. And so I sent it down a few more times and it always came back more or less the same numbers. And so I then told my supervisor, and we in turn told the laboratory director and everybody became very excited. So that was the beginning of Kevlar®.”[ii]
Ms. Kwolek provided additional details about the invention: “I was working with these very long-chained, they’re called extended chain polymers, where you had a lot of benzene rings in them. They were difficult to dissolve, and I found a solvent to dissolve them in. And the solution was very peculiar. It was not the typical polymer solution, which is sort of like syrup, but instead this was a very thin solution. It was very watery. Not only was it watery, but it was opalescent. The fellow who does the spinning looked at it and said this solution is too thin, it’s too watery, furthermore it has particles in it and it’s going to plug up my equipment.” And actually what he was doing was interpreting the opalescence there as particles. I filtered this solution and I knew there were no particles in it and he still refused to spin. So I think eventually after a few days he had a guilty conscience or something and he came and said he would spin that thing. We spun it and it spun beautifully. It was very strong and very stiff, unlike anything we had made before. I knew that I had made a discovery. I didn’t shout Eureka! But I was very excited, as was the whole laboratory excited, and management was excited because we were looking for something new, something different, and this was it.”[iii]
“Kevlar® is famous for its protective powers, and thanks to its application in bullet resistant vests and body armor, it has saved countless lives.”[iv]
Ms. Stephanie L. Kwolek, who died on June 18, 2014 at the age of ninety, is truly an icon for the Dare Bigger™ brand platform for DuPont™ Kevlar®. According to Ms. Kwolek, “I was elated to have made this (DuPont™ Kevlar®) discovery because most people work a lifetime and they never do anything like this, something that saves human lives. I think the role of science is to improve human life in general and improve the world as well. When I reflect back upon my career, I am inspired by the fact that I was able to do something that was of benefit to mankind.”[v]
My introductory chemistry laboratory class presentation, which delved into the molecular structure of Kevlar® and its properties, received a grade of 99%. After my presentation, my classmates expressed enthusiasm for DuPont™ Kevlar® and the science behind it by choosing to watch the video called “The Kevlar® Journey, Top to Bottom” which I played for them. When the video concluded a few of the students and the instructor briefly mentioned products they own that contain DuPont™ Kevlar®.
[i] Rothman, Lily, “Stephanie Kwolek.” Time, 7-14 July 2014, p. 21.
[ii] [WeBoMediaLLC]. (2013, Oct. 7). “Museum of Science Stephanie Kwolek.” [Video File]. Retrieved Nov. 25, 2015 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?V=UISIOB9tnRw.
[iii] [Chemical Heritage Foundation]. (2012, Sept. 10). “Women in Chemistry: Stephanie Kwolek.” [Video File]. Retrieved Nov. 25, 2015 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?V=L1pepaAdkWA.
[iv] Rothman, p. 21.
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