Kevlar: From lab accident to life-saving miracle

Technology |  3 min. read

“When I walked into the emergency room, the doctors and nurses were surprised because they were told an officer was shot in the head.  Imagine their surprise when the officer walked in because of the Kevlar® in his helmet.”

That’s Cincinnati police officer Daniel Kowalski, telling his story of one night on duty in December 2009.

“I was part of the SWAT team…making entry into an apartment for a homicide suspect.  The suspect fired two shots from a 9mm handgun…If I had not worn the helmet that was made with Kevlar®, I would have had two 9mm rounds in the right side of my head just above my right ear.”

“I should be six feet under and not writing this story.  My life was saved by Kevlar®… I am around today to watch my four daughters grow up and live life.”

And THIS story, is the story of how a lab accident led to that miracle.

Stephanie Kwolek was a chemist working for DuPont.  Her project in 1965, was to come up with “something” to make tougher tires.  A fiber strong enough to replace the steel wires that were used back then.

One day in the lab, like many other days in the lab, she was dissolving polymers (plastics, from petrochemicals) in a solvent, looking for that “something” — when something happened.  Instead of getting thicker and thicker, which was the usual outcome, this solution got thinner and more watery.

Kwolek knew she had something out of the ordinary, but she had to talk one of her colleagues into finding out just what – by putting that solution in a “spinneret” (which spins liquid polymers into fibers).

“We spun it, and it spun beautifully,” Kwolek said.  “It was very strong and very stiff, unlike anything we had ever made before.”

So tough, it was five times stronger than steel, pound for pound.  So tough, that DuPont had to get a new machine to test how strong it was.  And so tough, that since it’s been used to make body armor, it’s saved the lives of thousands of police officers.

Like the life of David Spicer.

“Police officer David Spicer was wearing a Kevlar® vest when he was shot by a drug suspect in 2001…Spicer took four .45-caliber slugs to the chest and arms at point-blank range and lived to tell about it.”

“The last one hit his nametag, bending it into a horseshoe shape, before burrowing into his vest, leaving a 10-inch tear.  ‘If that round would have entered my body, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now,’ the Dover police officer said.

“While recovering from his wounds, Spicer spoke briefly by phone with Ms. Kwolek and thanked her.  ‘She was a tremendous woman,’ he said.”

So what makes a miracle?  Kevlar® is made from aramid fiber, which is made from benzene and xylene, two key petrochemicals – and petrochemicals, are the chemicals produced by breaking apart or physically separating molecules found in petroleum or natural gas.  So while Kevlar® is not found in nature, it IS produced from what nature has given us.

What makes this particular polymer so tough, is that it’s made of long chains of molecules, that all run parallel to each other, and are tightly, very tightly, bonded together.  So when something hard and fast, like a bullet, hits Kevlar®, instead of breaking them apart, that force is spread across all those chains of molecules, soaking up the impact.  One chemist said it’s “like a net catching a ball.”

Like this.

“Investigator Kyle Russel was attacked during a routine traffic stop on a highway outside of Washington, DC, in September 2008.  As Investigator Russel approached the vehicle, the driver grabbed a .45 caliber pistol and shot Russel in the chest.  When he reported the shooting to police dispatch, he said, ‘I’m okay.  I think the vest got it.’”

Or like Officer Kowalski, sometimes the helmet “got it”.

THIS Kevlar® helmet, was worn by a member of the Orlando PD SWAT team, that went in after the shooter at the Pulse nightclub back in 2016.  49 people had already died inside, when the killer came out shooting at officers.  One of those officers was Michael Napolitano, and that was his helmet.

The shooter was killed.  And as the Orlando Police Chief reported, “Spoke with our officer, he is ok…not seriously injured.  Kevlar helmet saved his life.”

For anyone in harm’s way, Kevlar® really can be a life-saving miracle.  So maybe it’s no surprise, that when Kwolek died four years ago, the U.S. Army tweeted this:

“Rest in peace, Stephanie Kwolek. Thank you for inventing Kevlar and saving Soldiers’ lives.”  — U.S. Army (@USArmy) June 20, 2014