DuPont plans largest Kevlar expansion since fiber’s inception

Source: AP - AP Wire Service 9-07

AP Business Writer

DOVER, Del. (AP) – DuPont will invest $500 million to increase production of Kevlar, best known for its use in military body armor, the company said.

The expansion, when complete in 2010, will increase capacity by more than 25 percent and represents the largest Kevlar expansion since the aramid fiber was introduced in 1965, the company said.

DuPont, based in Wilmington, Del., said the multiphase expansion will begin later this year with increased polymer production at its Richmond, Va., plant, followed by expansion of spinning or fiber-making capacity at a site still to be determined.

While Kevlar is best known for its use in lightweight body armor, DuPont vice president Thomas Powell said the expansion is based on “global megatrends” in three broad categories of applications: safety and protection, energy-efficient materials and infrastructure needs in developing economies.

“It’s the biggest investment we’ve ever made in the Kevlar business,” said Powell, vice president and general manager for DuPont Advanced Fiber Systems. “Hopefully, this sends a strong message to customers that we see a strong future in this.”

DuPont shares were up 88 cents to $50.18 in mid-morning trading Wednesday.

While the increased demand for Kevlar includes military applications, where it is used in both body armor and vehicle armor, Powell said the federal government made no specific requests for increased production.

“We are constantly in discussion about what they need, ... but they don’t make specific requests around capacity,” he said.

DuPont spokeswoman Stephanie Jacobson noted that less than half of the company’s Kevlar production goes into personal protection, and Powell said DuPont sees growing demand for Kevlar in a broad range of applications.

Five times stronger than steel on a weight basis, Kevlar can be used to build lighter-weight airplanes and cars, making them more energy efficient. Infrastructure applications range from protecting fiber-optic cables to strengthening aging bridges by wrapping them in Kevlar, Powell said.

“When people think about Kevlar, obviously what gets the attention is ballistic protection,” he noted, adding that the material’s use is “much larger” than that.

While DuPont manufactures some protective apparel with Kevlar, most of it is sold in fiber or paper form to manufacturers of end products.

DuPont’s customers have included Sioux Manufacturing Corp., an American Indian-owned plant based in North Dakota that makes Kevlar-based armor for the military. The company became the target of a Justice Department investigation last year for alleged contract irregularities involving the weaving of Kevlar cloth into armor products. The Military Times newspapers reported in July that up to 2 million helmets may have been manufactured with Kevlar cloth woven by Sioux Manufacturing in a looser density than required by military specifications.

Kevlar was originally developed for use in automotive tires, but the market for that application did not develop as DuPont predicted. It has since become synonymous with ballistic and stab-resistant body armor and has been incorporated into vehicle armor, aircraft, firefighting gear, and blast and storm-resistant building materials.

Powell said high energy prices have increased the demand for lightweight strength fibers in the aerospace, oil and gas, and automotive industries.

“This is a significant investment for DuPont and underscores our commitment to sustainability and providing products that improve the safety and protection of people and critical processes around the world,” said Mark Vergnano, group vice president for DuPont’s safety and protection unit.

From 2000 to 2006, DuPont completed four Kevlar fiber expansion projects in Richmond and in Maydown, Northern Ireland, incorporating a new fiber technology that it developed and patented.

In August 2006, DuPont said it expected to invest more than $100 million in a three-phase capacity expansion that would raise its fiber and paper capability of Nomex, another aramid fiber known for its flame resistance, by about 10 percent. The first phase of the Nomex expansion is scheduled to go online later this year.

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