A Visit to a Kevlar Factory
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
On Mondays, we focus on technology, and today the technology is a bulletproof vest.
Not many molecules are household names, but an exception is Kevlar. That's the superstrong material used in everything from bulletproof vests to kayaks. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Kevlar's discovery. Its manufacturer, DuPont, is churning out more than ever. The company says production is rising at about 10 percent a year. NPR's Nell Boyce recently visited the biggest Kevlar factory, in Richmond, Virginia, which also has a kind of scientific torture chamber, where scientists are searching for the next superstrong molecule.
NELL BOYCE reporting:
With a war on, demand for protective materials is way up, and at DuPont's old brick factory, the Kevlar spinning machines are working non-stop.
(Soundbite of voices)
BOYCE: DuPont's Bill Harrison shows off hundreds of spools of Kevlar thread that are waiting to be shipping out. They gleam under the fluorescent lights.
I have to say, I wasn't prepared for kind of how surprisingly beautiful it is. I mean, it looks like these sort of beautiful bobbins of just like thousands of gold threads or something. It's like you're going to make a tapestry.
Mr. BILL HARRISON (DuPont): That's a natural color of the Kevlar polymer and it's pretty stuff.
BOYCE: A DuPont chemist named Stephanie Kwolek discovered Kevlar in 1965. She quickly realized that the molecule had intriguing properties. It was lightweight, heat-resistant and five times stronger than steel. At first, DuPont figured they could use Kevlar to make more durable car tires. Then they realized it could do something even better.
(Soundbite of gunshot)
BOYCE: It could stop a speeding bullet.
Mr. PAT FITZGERALD (Ballistics Expert): This is the Kevlar ballistic range.
BOYCE: Next door to the factory, ballistics expert Pat Fitzgerald works in a small lab he uses to test new protective vests. Photos of police officers and soldiers who owe their lives to Kevlar line the walls. Fitzgerald has just fired a .44 Magnum round into a quilted panel that would go into a vest. It's made from 28 layers of fabric, woven from Kevlar thread.
Mr. FITZGERALD: See, this is where we shot, and you can feel the bullet right in there.
BOYCE: So the bullet is inside this thing?
Mr. FITZGERALD: Yes, it is. You can feel it right in there. It's hard.
BOYCE: Next door to the firing range is the stab lab. Junie Lewis shows off real shivs and knives that were confiscated from prisoners.
Mr. JUNIE LEWIS (Knife Expert): Let's see what happens if I take this ice pick and go into the vest.
(Soundbite of striking noise)
Mr. LEWIS: And as you can see, no penetra--a lot of penetration. It would easily pass through the vest.
BOYCE: Surprisingly, the Kevlar pad that just stopped a bullet can't stop an ice pick. But with a little tinkering, DuPont has made tighter weaves that can resist a sharp edge. And it's made other fabrics to resist a different danger, fire.
Unidentified Woman: Five, four, three, two, one.
(Soundbite of fire breaking out)
BOYCE: A few doors down from the stab lab, a dozen propane flame-throwers create a fireball that engulfs Thermo-Man. He's a six-foot-tall mannequin covered in 122 heat sensors.
(Soundbite of fire breaking out)
BOYCE: Researcher Roger Perry(ph) uses Thermo-Man to test out new fabric design, made with known materials like Kevlar. But like the other labs at this facility, he's also eager to see if newly created molecules can withstand the abuse.
Mr. ROGER PERRY (DuPont Researcher): It's had to predict how some materials will perform. We use the lab to do so much different kinds of research and evaluation of materials that we really see something different every time.
BOYCE: The dream is one lightweight durable material that can withstand everything from bullets to biological weapons. And new technologies are coming down the pipeline. But Kevlar has proven so versatile and dependable that experts predict it'll probably be used in some way for at least another 40 years.
Nell Boyce, NPR News.
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