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Kevlar: It’s Everywhere!

Kevin Galens on Flickr

Kevlar is a fabric with some quite amazing properties. It’s incredibly tough, it can resist bullets, it is virtually fireproof as well as being lightweight and flexible. As such it gets used in a wide range of products across a range of industries. If you have heard of Kevlar it’s probably because of “bulletproof vests” which is its most well known use. These bulletproof or “ballistic” vests containing Kevlar can stop bullets on impact or remove so much energy from a bullet as it passes through them that the wearer hopefully escapes uninjured.

However there are many other everyday products that contain and make use of Kevlar’s amazing properties. Car and motorcycle tyres for example have Kevlar embedded inside the rubber and this means that less rubber needs to be used to form a tyre. This has two effects: the tyre can be pumped up to a higher pressure and the tyre weighs less. The resulting higher stiffness and lightening of a tyre is one reason why modern vehicles are more fuel efficient than older ones and, of course, using less fuel is important as it reduces the amount of emissions vehicles emit which makes them greener too.

Speaking of motorcycles, another modern use of Kevlar is in safety equipment for motorcycle riders. Most motorcycle gloves, trousers and jackets will contain some Kevlar to protect the rider should they fall off. Similarly it’s become quite common for Kevlar to be used in running shoes for people who run off-road over rugged terrain. A Kevlar running shoe in these conditions will last a lot longer than those using more traditional fabric, whilst still being lightweight and of course can still look fashionable. There really is no end to the use of Kevlar, it gets used in kitchenware, gardening gloves, climbing ropes and more.Kevlar isn’t always used in the way traditional fabrics are, a great example is that it gets used a lot in the manufacture of aeroplane parts. Often Kevlar is sandwiched between more solid materials such as fibreglass or carbon fibre to form panels that make things like cabin flooring and storage areas. These panels are lightweight, strong and have good fire resistant properties all important attributes in aerospace engineering.

The inventor of Kevlar was Stephanie L Kwolek who created Kevlar in 1965 as part of her work for the Du Pont company. Stephanie was born in Pennsylvania and her parents both had interests that linked to her later career. Her mother had lots of skills around sewing, both making and mending garments and Stephanie developed an interest in fabrics from a young age. Her father was interested in nature and he and Stephanie would explore the woodlands near their home and Stephanie would take notes and drawings and log her interactions with nature. These early experiences and skills set her on a journey into science and chemistry.

Stephanie graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and applied to work at the DuPont company where she was tasked with polymer research. Polymers are substances made up of large molecules in which there are repeating smaller units that form chains. You can kind of imagine them like chainmail but at a really small scale. Discovery of new and interesting polymers leads to lots of new products and therefore companies are keen to explore them. Stephanie was asked to look for “super fibres”, new polymers that would create fibres that would work in extreme conditions and situations. Stephanie performed lots of research and discovered new working methods of creating polymers which had tighter chains arranged more densely and arranged more neatly than previous polymers and this led to her discovery of Kevlar. Kevlar has had such an amazing impact in the modern world that Stephanie was awarded the Perkin medal in 1997 which is one of the highest awards given to American chemists by the Society of Chemical Industry.




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