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Nomex inventor Wilfred Sweeny was born in Glasgow, Scotland on April 22, 1926.
As a child he developed a keen interest in science, and often received gifts
such as chemistry sets for Christmas. He loved coming up with concoctions such
as invisible inks.
Sweeny attended Glasgow University where
he earned his B.Sc. (1st Class Honours) in 1946; and a Ph.D. in chemistry in
1950. He worked in Britain for T. and H. Smith, Ltd. (now part of Macfarlan
Smith), where he received his first patent for a new synthesis of tropanone.
In 1953 Sweeny began working for the DuPont
Corp. Working on a polymer scouting program in the company's Textile Engineering
Lab, Sweeny began looking for a way to develop a crystalline, high-melting polymer
fiber. Eventually he found a way to make a high molecular weight product that
could be spun into a tough crystallizable fiber that had outstanding thermal
and non-flammable properties.
Soon after, commercialization of the fiber was achieved via a discovery by
Dr.Wayne Sorenson that polymerization and spinning could be achieved in the
one series of amide solvents, such as dimethylacetamide. The polymer was named
Nomex, which has become an especially important material for firefighters. Nomex
is used for their helmets, their clothing, and the blankets they use to cover
and prevent burning of victims in a fire or in a flaming vehicle. Nomex is also
used in flight suits and in a number of ways in car racing.
In addition to his Nomex-related discoveries, Sweeny also developed technology
for non-discoloring, basic-dyeable Orlon acrylic fibers. Previous acrylic fibers
and fabrics turned yellow or brown when exposed to light and when washed in
aqueous basic detergents or soap. Sweeny's work assured the viability of the
Orlon venture in the 1950s and contributed to the development of commercial
basic-dyeable Dacron® polyester.
Over the course of his career Sweeny earned 23 U.S. patents, ranging from
acrylonitrile/styrenesulfonic acid, Nomex, carbon fiber, semiconductive fiber,
and a new solvent for aromatic polyamides. He has authored at least a dozen
publications and co-authored the recent book "Preparative Methods of Polymer
Chemistry"(Sorenson, Sweeny and Campbell, Interscience. 2001). Sweeny has also
been a recipient of the George G. Snively Award from the Sports Car Club of
America for Nomex clothing. In January, 2002, Sweeny was awarded the Lavoisier
Medal of Achievement, the highest award for scientific and technical excellence
Dr. Sweeny retired from DuPont in 1991. In his retirement Sweeny says he reads
and thinks about new polymers as well as improvements for current ones. Science
is never far from his mind. He has said, "My profession has been my hobby and
doing research was fun and mind-stretching." He does find some time to play
tennis, however, "particularly singles."