‘I am striving to develop more environmentally friendly refrigerants for a sustainable future’

University of Kansas faculty are striving to advance knowledge, interpret our world, solve problems, spark innovation, create beauty and catalyze imagination through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Through the “I Am Striving” series, we’ll learn more about what inspires KU researchers, as well as the goals and impact of their work.

Q&A with Mark Shiflett, Foundation Distinguished Professor, Chemical & Petroleum Engineering and Institute for Sustainable Engineering

Explain your research as you would explain it to someone outside your field, such as your grandparents.

Our research involves how to replace the current refrigerants that are used in everything from your home air conditioner to your refrigerator to your automobile. The reason that they need to be replaced is that if they leak out of the system — which is pretty common — and get into the atmosphere, they are contributing to global warming. And you can imagine that this is a huge problem in terms of the number of air conditioners and refrigerators that exist around the world. Legislation in the United States is requiring that this replacement happen over the next 20 years. So our research is looking at how to take the existing refrigerants and recycle them so that we can use them in systems again, but make them safer for the environment.

What does your research look like? What methods do you use?

Our research involves how to separate refrigerants like the refrigerant that’s used in, for example, your home air conditioner. It’s actually a mixture of two different gases. One of those gases actually is still environmentally safe to use. The other one has high global warming potential. Currently there is no method available for separating those refrigerants. So my graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are developing separation methods that involve using things like membranes, or porous media, or a type of solvent called an ionic liquid. We believe that by using those types of new materials, we can actually separate those refrigerants so that one of them can be recycled and reused in the future with new products, and the other one can be converted or repurposed into products that would be safe for the environment.

What inspires your research? Why are you passionate about this work?

One of the reasons that I became a professor was to help educate the next generation of engineers. When I started my career in DuPont, I actually worked on the development of the refrigerants that we are phasing out today. When I started my career, the issue was ozone depletion, and the refrigerants were depleting the Earth’s ozone layer, and so we developed the current line of refrigerants that are used today. We helped solve the ozone crisis. But now the concern has turned to global warming. And so similar to my own career, I want to help inspire this next generation of engineers learn how to replace the existing refrigerants, how to develop new products and new processes. Ultimately, that should allow them to start great careers at companies around the world to help solve this problem.

How does your research directly impact your field, society, Kansas and the world?

Our research will certainly impact global temperature rise. Temperature rise is due to global-warming gases like carbon dioxide. That’s the one that most people talk about; it probably contributes to about 90% of the global warming that’s occurring. However, refrigerants also are contributing to global warming. They probably contribute to about 7% of the global warming that we’re experiencing. We believe that by phasing out the existing refrigerants and replacing those with new ones that have a much lower atmospheric lifetime, we can reduce global temperature rise by about 0.5 degrees Celsius over the next 25 years. The impact that has on the state of Kansas is that one of my graduate students just created the first startup company in Kansas that will help translate the research from my lab out into industry. That’s an opportunity for my students to be able to run their own startup company and interface with larger companies that ultimately will use the technology.

What is a recent study/example of work you’d like to share?

We recently retrofitted a chiller at Watson library with a new refrigerant that was developed and donated by the Chemours chemical company. This was the first installation of this refrigerant at a university, and Johnson Controls donated the labor for doing the retrofit. We actually have two chillers now that are operating that are cooling Watson Library — one that’s on the existing refrigerant, and one that’s on the new refrigerant. The new refrigerant is much more environmentally safe. So students are now monitoring the performance to determine if the new refrigerant is more energy efficient and has the same cooling capacity.

What do you hope are some of the outcomes of your research and work?

I believe the impact of our research on refrigerants will be that we’ll be able to substantially reduce global warming, that we’ll be able to develop products that are more energy efficient, and probably most importantly, that we’re able to develop sustainable products — products that are circular in nature, so that if they go into a system, they can be recycled and reused. This will create job opportunities for the students that are working on these products and lead to great careers for them in the future.