Kevlar is well known as the material in body armor worn by police officers and soldiers. In 1964 Stephanie L. Kwolek at DuPont’s Pioneering Research Laboratory synthesized an aromatic polymer (one spun with a solvent rather than melt spun) that produced a durable and exceptionally strong fiber. Throughout the 1980s, DuPont introduced new varieties of Kevlar for such uses as cut-resistant gloves and lighter-weight body armor. More than 2,500 lives have been saved by officers wearing body armor.
Chemist Stephanie L. Kwolek developed the first liquid crystal polymer which provided the basis for Kevlar brand fiber. A native of Pittsburgh, Kwolek earned a degree in chemistry from what is now Carnegie Mellon University. She joined DuPont in 1946 and in 1950 joined the search for new polymers and lower temperature condensation processes needed to produce specialty textile fibers. DuPont scientists struggled to develop a stiffer and tougher nylon-related fiber until 1965, when Kwolek broke the deadlock by devising a liquid crystal solution that could be cold-spun. Her discovery ultimately resulted in the commercialization of Kevlar, a fiber that is five times stronger than the same weight of steel. Kwolek was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1996.
Kevlar was little known during the 15 years when DuPont spent $500 million to develop the product that Fortune magazine called “a miracle in search of a market.” DuPont began developing the substance for use in tires under the working name “Fiber B” at a pilot plant in Richmond, Va.