Stephanie Kwolek’s work can be summed up as creating synthetic fibers and textiles meant to withstand great pressure without breaking, while maintaining a light weight. In other words, Kwolek invented Kevlar®, and the rest of the Kevlar® family. Kevlar is a heat-resistant material that is five times stronger than steel but lighter than fiberglass. Originally intending to create a “new, lightweight plastic to be used in car tires,” (Famous Scientists, 2014) Kwolek unexpectedly discovered not only a material that would allow for better fuel economy in vehicles, but would eventually be used in lightweight body armor for police forces and military personnel; to convey messages across the ocean as a protector of undersea optical-fiber cable; bridge suspension; as well as canoes, drumheads, frying pans, gloves, tires, yacht sails, shoes, ropes and tennis racquet strings . (Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2015)
Tools and Methods
Kwolek specialized in developing low-temperature processes for finding petroleum-based synthetic fibers of incredible strength and rigidity. Kwolek’s work involved preparing intermediates, which is the reaction product of each elementary step of a chemical reaction, excluding the final product; “synthesizing aromatic polyamides of high molecular weight; dissolving the polyamides in solvents, and spinning these solutions into fibers.” (American Chemical Society, 2014) Kwolek’ research revealed that under specific conditions, large numbers of polyamide molecules, a substance composed of long, multiple-unit molecules, “line up in parallel to form cloudy liquid crystalline solutions.”
Originally, Kwolek’s co-worker refused to spin her experiment, believing the concoction would damage his machine. When he relented, however, Kwolek discovered that the solution, which was fluid and cloudy rather than viscous and clear, created fibers of greater strength and stiffness than had ever before been created. This discoverey allowed for a plethora of new products: ones resistant to tearing, extreme heat, and ammunition.