Stephanie Kwolek (Chemist/Inventor)

stephanie-kwolek.jpgStephanie Louise Kwolek (July 31, 1923 - June 18, 2014) was an Polish-American chemist who invented poly-paraphenylene terephtalamide—better known as Kevlar.

She was born in the Pittsburgh suburb of New Kensington, Pennsylvania. Kwolek has won numerous awards for her work in polymer chemistry.

Kwolek was born in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, in 1923. Her father, John Kwolek, died when she was ten years old. Kwolek attributes her interest in science to him and an interest in fashion to her mother, Nellie Zajdel Kwolek.

In 1946, Kwolek earned a degree in Chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University (then known as Margaret Morrison Carnegie College). Kwolek had planned on becoming a doctor and hoped that a temporary job in a chemistry-related field could earn her enough money to go to medical school.

In 1946, Hale Charch, a future mentor to Kwolek, offered her a position at DuPont's Buffalo, New York facility as soon as he met her. Though Kwolek initially only intended to work for DuPont temporarily, she found the work interesting enough to stay and not pursue a medical career. Kwolek moved to Wilmington, Delaware in 1950 to continue to work for DuPont. In 1959, she won a publication award from the American Chemical Society (ACS).

While working for DuPont, Kwolek invented Kevlar.  In anticipation of a gas shortage, in 1964 her group began searching for a new lightweight strong fiber to use for light but strong tires. The polymers she had been working with at the time, poly-p-Phenylene-terephthalate and polybenzamide, formed liquid crystal while in solution, something unique to those polymers at the time.

The solution was "cloudy, opalescent upon being stirred, and of low viscosity" and usually was thrown away. However, Kwolek persuaded the technician, Charles Smullen, who ran the "spinneret" to test her solution, and was amazed to find that the fiber did not break, unlike nylon. Both her supervisor and laboratory director understood the significance of her discovery and a new field of polymer chemistry quickly arose. By 1971, modern Kevlar was introduced. However, Kwolek was not very involved in developing the applications of Kevlar.

In 1986, Kwolek retired as a research associate for DuPont. However, she still consults for DuPont, and also serves on both the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences. During her 40 years as a research scientist, she filed and received either 17 or 28 patents. In 1995, she became the fourth woman to be added to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

In 1996, she received the National Medal of Technology, and in 2003, she was added to the National Women's Hall of Fame. She received the 1997 Perkin Medal from the American Chemical Society, and a 1980 award from the ACS for "Creative Invention".


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