July 31, 2010

Happy Birthday, Stephanie Kwolek

Born on this day in 1923 in Pennsylvania, Kwolek became a chemist and invented poly-paraphenylene terephtalamide. You know—Kevlar!

Kwolek was working for DuPont when she invented Kevlar, which is used for bicycle tires, racing sails, mooring lines, and (famously) body armor. It is a high-strength material, especially considering its weight: Kevlar is FIVE TIMES stronger than steel, weight-for-weight.

Kwolek received a patent in 1971 for Kevlar, and she has received at least 27 other patents and numerous awards for her work in polymer chemistry. A polymer is a natural or synthetic material made up of many (sometimes millions) of repeated units. Two examples of natural polymers are tortoise shell and amber. Plastics are polymers that humans artificially make.

Find out more about polymers.
  • Here is a polymer experiment using PVA glue and borax.
  • This experiment is a bit easier, because it combines white glue with borax.
  • Kwolek is quoted in this family guide to invention, put out by the Smithsonian Institution:
  • "All sorts of things can happen when you're open to new ideas and playing around with things.

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