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2018-04-11 / Featured / Front Page

In Chesterfield, DowDuPont bets big on Kevlar

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER


Presently, more than 80 percent of the world’s Kevlar is manufactured at Chesterfield’s Spruance plant. The synthetic fiber is wound into spools like the ones shown here, then turned into other products. 
PHOTOS COURTESY OF DOWDUPONT INC. Presently, more than 80 percent of the world’s Kevlar is manufactured at Chesterfield’s Spruance plant. The synthetic fiber is wound into spools like the ones shown here, then turned into other products. PHOTOS COURTESY OF DOWDUPONT INC. As one of the few female research scientists working in industrial chemistry during the “Mad Men” era, Stephanie Kwolek was pioneering in ways unrelated to her gender.

Working as part of a DuPont team to create a fiber that could replace the steel used in radial tires, Kwolek would experience “a case of serendipity” while attempting to convert a solid polymer to a liquid one.

Instead of creating the clear, thick liquid she had hoped for, Kwolek generated a dark, thin mixture. Her colleagues said the murky substance probably wouldn’t work as a fiber, but Kwolek, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 90, tested the liquid anyway. As it turns out, the substance could be spun into a fiber five times stronger by weight than steel. Initially called “Fiber B,” the polymer now known as Kevlar soon underwent development for use in tires at DuPont’s Spruance plant, located on Jefferson Davis Highway. DuPont would spend the next decade, and about $500 million, researching uses for Kevlar, a quest that Fortune magazine dubbed “a miracle in search of a market.”

Finally, in 1974, Kevlar’s most well-known usage came to the market: bulletproof vests. Today, Kevlar has hundreds of uses, including cut-resistant gloves for industry workers, fiber-optic cable covers and brake pads, not to mention reinforcing buildings to protect against tornadoes and hurricanes.

Last month, chemical giant DowDuPont Inc. announced that it would invest $50 million in its Kevlar production facilities, the majority of which are in Chesterfield. Following recent consolidations, this reinvestment in Kevlar offers some optimism for the future.

In February of last year, declining demand led DuPont to close its Kevlar plant near Goose Creek, South Carolina, and consolidate operations at Spruance. The $500 million Goose Creek factory had been in operation for less than six years when it closed. An article in Charleston’s Post and Courier stated that competing technologies and DuPont’s plan to cut $1 billion in operating costs ahead of its merger with Dow contributed to the closing.

“At the time, we made those right decisions,” says Sheila Tiegs, who oversees all DowDuPont’s sourcing and manufacturing for Kevlar and Nomax, a flame-resistant material commonly used in firefighting and racing equipment. “That’s helping us to lift margins within the business.”

Today, it appears that business is picking back up again, which is a good sign for Spruance, where more than 80 percent of the world’s Kevlar is now manufactured. Company officials say the $50 million investment speaks to the ongoing demand of the high-strength synthetic fiber.

“We have a lot of different segments that we serve and they’re all going gangbusters right now,” Tiegs says.

In addition to the Spruance plant – which was DuPont’s largest manufacturing facility – the company operates a Kevlar plant in Ireland that primarily supplies Europe. Most of the new $50 million investment will go toward the county facility.

“A good 70 percent of that capital investment is going into that plant,” Tiegs says. “We are committed to modernizing the facilities there, investing for reliability improvements. We have great [research and development] facilities at that site that are working on next generation products, and so have a commitment to modernizing our facilities.”

Much of the investment at Spruance will go into automation and improving the package for customers.

“Obviously, that plant being older, it requires more investment … just because of the age of the equipment,” she says.

Located on the former site of Ampthill, a plantation along the James River in Chesterfield that belonged to Revolutionary War Hero Col. Archibald Cary, Spruance had its beginnings in 1927 when DuPont purchased the land and moved the estate’s Ampthill House to the West End. The plant opened two years later, named for rayon pioneer William Spruance.

Over the years many different products have been manufactured at the site, including cellophane, cellulose acetate film, rayon yarn, Cordura yarn for tires, Tyvek, Nomex and Teflon. The site includes a research and development laboratory that has been “a key site in the development of new films,” an old DuPont website states.

Today, Tiegs says Spruance retains roughly 1,760 DowDuPont employees and about 600 contractors.

More than 50 years since its creation, Kevlar continues to enjoy widespread usage, and is credited with saving the lives of thousands of military and law enforcement officers. Incredibly strong but relatively light, Kevlar can be found in hockey sticks, surfboards, smartphone cases, skis, satellites and armored vehicles and is even used to reinforce overburdened bridges.

Carlos Suchicital, a research associate professor in Materials Science and Engineering at Virginia Tech, lauds Kevlar for its variety of uses.

“It’s a fiber with a very high strength, molecular-wise,” he says. But for all of its revolutionary attributes, some say Kevlar has been eclipsed by other products. Francisco Folgar, owner of Midlothian-based Inter Materials, touts other materials like Honeywell’s Spectra Shield as superior.

“We left Kevlar behind long ago because there are better materials that can be made,” says Folgar, who spent most of his career working as a researcher for DuPont. “Kevlar is long, long gone.”

The Kevlar investment comes on the heels of last year’s merger of DuPont and Dow Chemical into DowDuPont, the largest chemical company in the world. By June 2019, DowDuPont plans to split into three different companies: a materials science division called Dow; a specialty products division called DuPont; and a new agricultural chemical and seed firm called Corteva Agriscience.

“We’re focusing on our growth, and with the merge and the spin that DowDuPont is going through, we want to make sure that we establish a Kevlar business [with a] very high margin expectation, very high growth trajectory,” Tiegs says.

As far as Tiegs is concerned, things look rosy for Kevlar.

“We know that from competition [and] some of the actions that we see in the market. We know it because price increases hold,” she says. “It’s a healthy business, so we’re excited for this time in Kevlar for sure.” ¦

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