Kevlar (see the figure below) is a synthetic polymer made from two monomers 1,4-phenylene-diamine and terephthaloyl chloride (Kevlar is a registered trademark of DuPont). Kevlar’s first commercial use was as a replacement for steel in racing tires. Kevlar is typically spun into ropes or fibers. The material has a high tensile strength-to-weight ratio (it is about 5 times stronger than an equal weight of steel), making it useful for many applications from bicycle tires to sails to body armor.
The material owes much of its strength to hydrogen bonds between polymer chains (refer back to the tutorial on intermolecular interactions). These bonds form between the carbonyl group oxygen atom (which has a partial negative charge due to oxygen’s electronegativity) on one monomer and the partially positively charged hydrogen atom in the N–H bond of an adjacent monomer in the polymer structure (see dashed line in the figure below). There is additional strength derived from the interaction between the unhybridized p orbitals in the six-membered rings, called aromatic stacking.
Kevlar may be best known as a component of body armor, combat helmets, and face masks. Since the 1980s, the US military has used Kevlar as a component of the PASGT (personal armor system for ground troops) helmet and vest. Kevlar is also used to protect armored fighting vehicles and aircraft carriers. Civilian applications include protective gear for emergency service personnel such as body armor for police officers and heat-resistant clothing for fire fighters. Kevlar based clothing is considerably lighter and thinner than equivalent gear made from other materials (see the figure below).
In addition to its better-known uses, Kevlar is also often used in cryogenics for its very low thermal conductivity (along with its high strength). Kevlar maintains its high strength when cooled to the temperature of liquid nitrogen (–196 °C).