Chances are pretty good that you’ve never heard of Stephanie Kwolek and if you have an inkling of what she discovered — Poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide — then you’re pretty doggone smart.
Kwolek, who died last week at age 90, was a research chemist who discovered the solution used to create strong, tough aramid fibers that had incredible strength. She worked at the time for DuPont, which eventually branded her discovery as Kevlar.
That was in the mid-1960s. Since then, Kwolek’s remarkable discovery unarguably has affected millions, if arguably not billions, of people worldwide, in positive ways. It would be safe to say that her discovery has helped save an untold number of lives through the use of Kevlar for bulletproof vests and protective gear that has been and still is used by military forces.
After reading Kwolek’s obituary and some other online searching, it was interesting that what she found almost wasn’t used. At the time, DuPont was trying to come up with some new fibers to make lighter, tougher vehicle tires. The solutions the chemists created had to be processed through a “spinnerett” machine. The spinerett processor told Kwolek because her solution was cloudy that meant it likely would gum up the tiny holes in the machine that put out the fibers.
She urged him to try it, though, and it worked. The fibers were tougher, could be matted and put together in sheets, too. From there we outdoors folks, along with the non-outdoors folks, of course, have been blessed with numerous items aided by Kevlar’s toughness: canoes, paddles, kayaks, camping gear, protective dog booties and vests, and many more.
Carbon Express introduced the Maxima Red Hunter KV arrow back in 2011, a hunting arrow made with Kevlar. Companies have tried over the years to incorporate Kevlar into rifle stocks, too, which has had limited success. Some of the problems are detailed in this description from McMillan Fiberglass Stocks about working with Kevlar and Remington.
Kevlar, of course, isn’t just in bulletproof vests or outdoors gear. It’s found in our vehicles, homes, offices and numerous other places. We take it for granted. But I’m offering a big thanks to Ms. Kwolek for her discovery and persistence. It changed lives.
— Alan Clemons, Managing Editor
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