The University of Kansas' Watson Library, where the KU engineering team retrofitted a chiller to use a new hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) refrigerant called Opteon XP10.

Chill out: Kansas engineers test more environmentally friendly cooling system

Engineers at the University of Kansas are developing a more environmentally friendly building cooling system — starting with an installation at one of their own campus buildings.

The Watson Library’s 900-ton chiller uses hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants to cool and dehumidify the building. But federal laws require a ramp-down in most HFC use over the next 15 years. 

The KU engineering team retrofitted one of the building’s chillers to use a new hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) refrigerant called Opteon XP10. The refrigerant is touted as potentially less ozone-depleting and bearing a lower global warming potential. 

KU is the first university to test this refrigerant, Mark Shiflett, engineering professor, said in a news release. With this system’s dual-chiller design, the engineers can directly compare the HFC and HFO equipment’s performance at a commercial scale.

“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.

The university’s Institute of Sustainable Engineering partnered with two companies to implement the retrofit: chemical company Chemours donated the new HFO refrigerant, and Johnson Controls — whose corporate headquarters is in Wisconsin — provided labor. Shifflet says this is a great example of a partnership that blends industry and institutional work to positively impact the environment while also providing real-life learning opportunities for students.

Industry presents problems that need solutions, and “the students get to work on applied projects that are important to industry,” Shifflet said. “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.”