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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

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Woman of the Week – Stephanie Kwolek

Posted July 10, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Stephanie Louise Kwolek was an American chemist, whose career at the DuPont Company spanned over forty years. She is most well known for her invention of a family of synthetic fibers of exceptional strength and stiffness: poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide — better known as Kevlar.

Kwolek was born to Polish immigrant parents in the Pittsburgh suburb of New Kensington, Pennsylvania, in 1923. Her father died when she was 10 years old, but spent her childhood with her exploring nature. She says that he sparked her interest in science.

In 1946, Kwolek earned a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in chemistry from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College of Carnegie Mellon University. She had planned to become a doctor and hoped she could earn enough money from a temporary job in a chemistry-related field to attend medical school.

Instead, she was quickly recruited to work at DuPoint’s Buffalo facility. She was mentored by Hale Charch. She actually told him she had another offer and needed a definite reply from DuPont, and he immediately offered her the job then.

She reportedly got her job because of the amount of men that were overseas at the time for World War II. She completed extensive research on polymers during her formative years there, so they let her stay. While Kwolek initially only intended to work for DuPont temporarily, she found the work interesting and decided to stay rather than pursuing a medical career, moving to Wilmington, Delaware, in 1950 to continue to work for the company.

In 1964, in anticipation of a gasoline shortage, her group began searching for a lightweight yet strong fiber. The research results were intended for use in tires. The polymers she had been working with at the time, poly-p-phenylene terephthalate and polybenzamide, formed liquid crystal while in solution that at the time had to be melt-spun at over 200 °C (392 °F), which produced weaker and less-stiff fibers. A unique technique in her new projects and the melt-condensation polymerization process was to reduce those temperatures to between 0–40 °C (32–104 °F).

This sort of cloudy solution usually was thrown away. However, she persuaded technician Charles Smullen, who ran the spinneret, to test her solution. To her surprise, this fiber did not break like nylon typically did.

Both her supervisor and the laboratory director understood the significance of her discovery, and a new field of polymer chemistry quickly arose. By 1971, modern Kevlar was introduced. Kwolek learned that the fibers could be made even stronger by heat-treating them. The polymer molecules, shaped like rods or matchsticks, are highly oriented, which gives Kevlar its extraordinary strength. It’s said to be stronger than steel.

Today, Kevlar is used in a great number of different ways, including armor, gloves, tires, yacht sails, shoes, ropes, and tennis racquet strings.

Kwolek was awarded the DuPont company's Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement. As of February 2015, she was the only female employee to have received that honor. In 1995, she became the fourth woman to be added to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Kwolek won numerous awards for her work in polymer chemistry, including the National Medal of Technology, the IRI Achievement Award and the Perkin Medal.

After retirement, she spent many years tutoring young girls in science. She died in 2014.

Sources:

https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/21/business/stephanie-l-kwolek-inventor-of-kevlar-is-dead-at-90.html?_r=0

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephanie_Kwolek

https://www.chemheritage.org/historical-profile/stephanie-l-kwolek

https://www.famousscientists.org/stephanie-kwolek/

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