Business ideas that changed the world: Kevlar
We explore the business idea that evolved by chance into the world's toughest material, with a universal market from top defence forces to pro athletes
Why: The product transformed the security industry
How: A DuPont chemist stumbled across the fibre when researching ways to create a new polymer for tyres
Who: Stephanie Kwolek
Fact: Kevlar is five times stronger than steel, based on equivalent weights
If you’ve ever been employed to protect others, there’s a good chance you’ll have been protected by Kevlar. The world’s toughest fibre, commonly used in the manufacture of body armour, helmets and bulletproof vests, turned 49 in 2014. While many of those who wear it would be thinking about leaving the firing line and putting their feet up around this age, Kevlar is still going strong, helping the world’s troops, firemen and policemen to defuse high-pressure situations.
Kevlar is also widely used in the construction of tornado shelters, bridge suspension cables, brake pads, space vehicles and loudspeaker cones. It was even used in the highly publicised (and much criticised) roof of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, and the adidas F50 boots worn by some of the world’s best known football players. Not bad for a product that was invented by mistake.
The history of Kevlar can be traced back to 1927, when science and research giant DuPont created a $20,000 budget for ‘fundamental research work’: the sort of work that may not lead directly to the development of a new product, but may create a foundation for subsequent discoveries – or just prove interesting for its own sake. In fact, the group set up to carry out the fundamental investigation soon gained an understanding of how to condense polymers, a process that led to the creation of extremely durable, adaptable materials. The invention of nylon followed in 1938, as did the invention of a string of commercially successful brands, including Teflon and Stainmaster.
Yet perhaps the most crucial offshoot of DuPont’s polymer research was Kevlar, which was invented by chemist Stephanie Kwolek, by accident, in the early 1960s. Kwolek was trying to create a thick, viscous polymer to use in tyres. However, during her research she found that her polymer was becoming cloudy and runny – hardly the solution she was after. Nonetheless, Kwolek and her technician spun the polymer into a fibre. Better to try it than just throw it away, they thought. Amazingly, when it went through the spinneret, it didn’t break. In fact, almost nothing could break it.
The material Kwolek and her technician had created was stiffer and stronger than any fibre previously created. Better still, Kwolek’s miracle product didn’t break or wither under pressure; the fibres were woven together as tightly as a spider’s web, meaning that it was almost impermeable. When they tried burning it, it wouldn’t melt. When they tried freezing it, it didn’t become brittle and snap. Various different chemicals had no effect. Kwolek and her technician soon realised that they’d stumbled on a truly unique discovery.
The product they’d created was strong and resilient, but also light and elastic; tough enough to be used in military defence and springy enough to be used for sports. DuPont introduced its new development 1965, but did not produce it in large quantities until 1971, and it was later that decade that commercial products were introduced onto the market.
It’s almost impossible to put a figure on the commercial value of Kevlar, since the fibre is so widely used in so many significant applications. It took DuPont six years to bring the product to market, but its potential soon became clear, particularly in the civil and military defence sectors.
The commercial impact, however, quickly became apparent. Following itscreation, DuPont asked its Pioneering Lab to turn the marvellous new polymerinto a commercial money-spinner. The possibilities seemed – and remain – almost endless. In addition to bulletproof vests, which have come to define the product, DuPont started to develop Kevlar for radial tyres, brake pads, racing sails, the cables of bridges and the shells of spacecraft. Researchers even found that the material could be used in loudspeaker cones and marching snare drums; with each passing year came new possibilities, and new commercial avenues to explore.
It took DuPont six years to bring the product to market, but its potential soon became clear, particularly in the civil and military defence sectors. Kevlar’s commercial prospects were further boosted when America’s National Institute of Justice commissioned a four-phase programme to develop bulletproof clothing using the new material. By 1973, researchers at the US army’s Edgewood Arsenal had developed a bulletproof vest, and by 1976 the product was ready for use by US police officers in the field, with the US military adopting it for flak jackets in 1978. Demand has not abated since. In 2011 global government spending on military body armour was set to reach $1.19bn, according to the report ‘The Military Body Armour & Protective Gear Market 2011–2021’. Vector Strategy forecast in 2009 that the US military would procure body armour to the value of $6bn between 2009 and 2015.
BCC Research, in a separate report, estimated that the global market for advanced protective gear and armour was worth $4bn in 2010, and would rise to $5.2bn by 2015. However, BCC’s report encompassed ancillary components (gloves, headwear and respirators); chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear gear; thermal protective; and armour and bullet resistant products, with ancillary components alone accounting for around 60% of the market’s value.
Innovations in the market
New inventions based on Kevlar technology continue to enter the market; indeed, the material is now being used to reinforce sheds and bunkers, as tests have shown that it can repel projectiles flying at speeds of up to 250mph. In November 2010, an anti-grenade net made up of tiny Kevlar fibres was launched by Qinetic – a further example of Kevlar’s continuing importance to civil and military defence forces.
New inventions based on Kevlar technology continue to enter the market. Buoyed by this continued innovation, DuPont has constructed a new $500m Kevlar production facility near Charleston, South Carolina. It is believed that the new Cooper River Kevlar start-up plant will increase global Kevlar production by 25% and double sales in developing countries by 2015. Brazil, for example, represents a major growth opportunity, due to the number of murders in the country, which total around 40,000 each year.
Kevlar’s market dominance is constantly under threat from competitors, who spend millions trying to develop competitive rivals to the product. International trade agreements also pose a threat; for example, the Korea–USA Free Trade Agreement could ultimately tempt US consumers into importing cheap Korean Kevlar substitutes. However, there is no doubt that, at present, Kevlar is still far and away the leading player in its sector.
The person behind the business idea
Surprisingly, Stephanie Kwolek has played a relatively minor role in the development of Kevlar since she first chanced upon the product. She remained a prolific inventor for the rest of her working life and went on to achieve 28 patents during her research career. She is now a part-time consultant for DuPont, and a mentor for young female scientists.
In recognition of her efforts, Kwolek has received the prestigious Kilby Award and the National Medal of Technology. In 1999, at San Franciso’s Exploratorium, she was given the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award – an accolade that recognised her pioneering role in mentoring young female scientists, as well as her own research efforts.
What does the Kevlar look like today?
Since the original discovery of Kevlar, DuPont has refined the product into several distinct variants. Notable varieties include Kevlar K29, the branch that is used for body protection; Kevlar49, typically used in cable and rope products; Kevlar K129, a high-tenacity variant typically used for ballistic applications; and Kevlar KM2, which is most commonly found in armoured vehicles.
Although a similar fibre called Twaron was launched commercially in 1987, having been developed in the 1970s by Dutch company ENKO (now part of AKZO), Kevlar has retained a huge market share, and demand for the product has remained high.
DuPont’s second quarter sales in 2014 supposedly reached $9.71 bln, with 14% generated by its safety and protection unit, within which textile apparels – namely Kevlar – remain key drivers of market growth.