Jose Palomino

Innovator Profiles: Stephanie Kwolek

November 29, 2016

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Kevlar is the main component of bulletproof vests, which protect millions of soldiers and law enforcement officers around the world. But it also has other uses — in airplanes, cables, firefighters’ boots, cut-resistant gloves, and even cell phones. Believe it or not, it was first intended as a material for use in car tires.

Here’s the story:

stephanie_kwolek_women_in_chemistry_from_videoStephanie Kwolek, one of the first women in the field of chemistry research, was a member of a team which in 1964 was tasked with searching for a durable, lightweight material to use in tires, ahead of an anticipated global gasoline shortage. The polymer that Kwolek discovered, however, would be more versatile and impactful than she ever expected.

The Purpose of Kevlar

Kwolek took a job as a researcher at DuPont in order to earn enough money to go to medical school. But instead of becoming a medical practitioner, she ended up helping people in another way — with the creation of Kevlar.

The polymers that Kwolek discovered during her time at DuPont were stronger than any fibers ever encountered before — approximately five times stronger than steel by weight. In the early years of Kevlar’s development, the widespread applications were not yet clear, but upper management at DuPont understood that Kwolek’s research was revolutionary, and assigned their Pioneering Lab to find a commercially-viable version of Kwolek’s polymers.

Profit and Protection

The ways in which Kevlar has come to be used today span industries — military outfitting, sports equipment, cell phone technology, car manufacturing, and Japanese archery, to name a few. Kwolek herself didn’t retain the patent for Kevlar — instead, it’s DuPont that profits from Kevlar sales. (Kwolek did have a long career at DuPont and retired in 1986.)

But profit isn’t the only benefit of Kwolek’s invention. Kevlar has also made the world a safer place — or at least, helped stop bullets and shrapnel on their way to kill our armed forces and policemen. Kwolek may have set out to improve tire technology, but instead, she ended up contributing a change to the entire world.

Defying Expectations

In the 1960s, Stephanie Kwolek was a pioneer in her field — one of the first women to hold a research position in the study of chemistry. As of 2016, she is the only woman ever to be awarded DuPont’s Lavoisier Medal for technological achievement.

She wasn’t just an innovator in her field, she was an innovator on behalf of women in science. Some of her accolades include the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists, the Perkin Medal from the American Chemical Society, and induction into both the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Bottom line:


 

The polymer that became Kevlar was an innovative discovery that yielded high levels of profit, and a wide range of uses to benefit society as a whole. But, it wasn’t the original intent of the research.

  • What ground-breaking inventions in your industry do you most admire?
  • Do you know any great pioneers in your own industry? Past or present?
  • Have you developed a product or process improvement that could be leveraged in another way?

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