Women’s Day (Patent) Series- The women behind the invention of Kevlar

Fabrics that can save lives were unthinkable before the 19th century! Many soldiers and law officers are indebted to one woman’s invention which has saved their lives, time and again.

Stephanie Kwolek, one of the first women research chemists, was a famous inventor who gained national recognition in 1960 for her work with long molecule chains at low temperatures. In 1971, she made a very important discovery which led to the invention of Kevlar, a synthetic material that is five times stronger steel. Kwolek made the breakthrough while working on specialty fibers at a DuPont laboratory in Wilmington. At the time, DuPont was looking for strong, lightweight fibers that could replace steel in automobile tires and improve fuel economy. Kevlar was the first organic fiber with sufficient tensile strength and modulus to be used in advanced composites. Originally developed as a replacement for steel in radial tires, Kevlar is now used in a wide range of applications.

Kwolek was born on July 31, 1923, in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, graduated from Carnegie Institution of Technology with a chemistry degree and was hired by DuPont a year after the end of World War II. Back in her childhood, Kwolek inherited a love of fabrics and sewing. So, she thought she might become a fashion designer, but destiny had other plans for her.

Kevlar’s properties include resistance to wear and tear, corrosion and flames. It is the main ingredient in the production of bulletproof vests. Furthermore, Kevlar is used in dozens of other products, including skis, safety helmets, hiking and camping gear, and suspension bridge cables. Its application can be seen in personal protection gears like armors, gloves, jackets, shoes, equipments, even in bicycle tyres to prevent them from puncture, paraglider’s  suspension lines etc.

Kwolek’s research efforts have resulted in her being the recipient or co-recipient of 17 U.S. patents. This noted woman inventor also has received such prestigious accolades as the Kilby Award and the 1999 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award. Kwolek was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994 as only the fourth woman member of 113. In 1996 she received the National Medal of Technology, and in 1997 the Perkin Medal, presented by the American Section of the Society of Chemical Industry—both honours rarely awarded to women.

Kwolek took credit for only the initial discovery of the technology that led to the development of Kevlar and gave others the credit for their efforts. The woman who was instrumental in saving so many lives, survived till the age of 90.

Authored by Sambhabi Patnaik.


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