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 the University of Glasgow, earning his BSc in Chemistry in 1946 and a PhD in Chemistry in 1950. He worked in Britain for T. and H. Smith, Ltd. (now 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 and his team began looking for a way to develop a crystalline, high-melting polymer fiber. Eventually they 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 1990. In January, 2002, Sweeny was awarded the Lavoisier Medal of Achievement, the highest award for scientific and technical excellence from DuPont.
Dr. Sweeny retired from DuPont in 1991. In his retirement Sweeny said 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.”
Sweeny passed away in 2011 at the age of 85.