LAWRENCE — When researchers at the University of Kansas wanted to test a new, environmentally friendly “chiller system” for large buildings, they didn’t have to go far — they chose Watson Library on the KU Lawrence campus.
“It just makes it easier to monitor,” said Mark Shiflett, Foundation Distinguished Professor of Chemical & Petroleum Engineering.
Two 900-ton York chiller units cool and dehumidify the nearly century-old Watson Library building, and until recently both units used hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants to do the job. But federal law requires most hydrofluorocarbon use to be phased down over the next 15 years — so Shiflett’s team retrofitted one of the chillers to use a new hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) refrigerant called Opteon XP10. The new refrigerant is “non-ozone depleting” and has a significantly lower global warming potential. The global reduction in HFCs is expected to avoid up to 0.5 degrees Celsius in global temperature rise.
KU is “the first university to test this refrigerant,” Shiflett said. Watson Library offers university researchers the ability to directly compare the performance of the new HFO refrigerant with the existing HFC system.
“We looked for an opportunity on campus where we could retrofit an existing chiller and study the performance, to see if it had the same cooling capacity and energy efficiency,” Shiflett said. “Now we’re going to monitor them side-by-side and compare the performance.
“This is a great demonstration at a commercial scale of one of the new refrigerants,” he said.
To execute the retrofit, KU’s Institute for Sustainable Engineering partnered with two companies: Chemours, a chemical company that donated the new HFO refrigerant; and Johnson Controls Inc., which produces heating and cooling systems, and provided labor for the project.
“This is a great example of how industry is partnering with our new Institute for Sustainable Engineering at KU, which is making a positive impact on our environment,” Shiflett said.
That’s also an advantage for the students involved in the project. Mechanical engineering seniors monitored the baseline performance of the older HFC unit as part of their capstone senior design course. A postdoctoral researcher and graduate student in chemical engineering will monitor the new HFO unit’s performance over the summer.
“Industry brings relevant problems that need solutions,” Shiflett said. “The students get to work on applied projects that are important to industry. That way when they graduate, they’ve got this great experience and become familiar with how industry works. It makes them more competitive when they go out in the workforce to get their first job.”
The Institute for Sustainable Engineering at KU aims to advance global sustainability through transformational engineering, science and education by putting a focus on creative solutions that can be applied to real-world issues that promote the societal, economic and environmental benefits of sustainable and green engineering.
Photo: Watson Library. Credit: Meg Kumin, KU Marketing.