Women in Transportation History: Stephanie Kwolek, Chemist

In 1965, chemist Stephanie Kwolek made a pivotal discovery while working on the development of a lightweight fiber that would be durable enough to replace the steel used in tires. This discovery led to the creation of a high-strength material that has since played a lifesaving role in transportation and various other industries.

Kwolek was born in 1923 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. In 1946, she earned a B.S. degree in chemistry from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College of the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now part of Carnegie Mellon University). That same year, Kwolek began working for DuPont at its facility in Buffalo, New York. She became one of the few women in the industrial chemistry field at that time. In 1950, Kwolek transferred to DuPont’s headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware.

As part of a group at DuPont that focused on producing a new type of fiber for radial tires, Kwolek was experimenting with polymers when she observed how the molecules lined up to form liquid crystalline polymer solutions of unusual strength and stiffness. Her breakthrough discovery led to the development of the heat-resistant Kevlar®, which is five times stronger than steel but lighter than fiberglass.

While best known today for its use in bullet-proof vests, Kevlar® has also been applied to more than 200 other products. The wide range of transportation-oriented products containing the material have included not only tires but also airplanes; spacecraft; kayaks; canoes; parachute lines; bridge cables; and armored vehicles.

Kwolek retired from DuPont in 1986. In 1995, she became the first woman to receive the company’s Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement. That same year, Kwolek was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2003. Kwolek died in Wilmington in 2014 at the age of 90.

For more information on Stephanie Kwolek, please check out her 20 June 2014 New York Times obituary at https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/21/business/stephanie-l-kwolek-inventor-of-kevlar-is-dead-at-90.html

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