The new green chemistry

Mark Shiflett was 25 years old when he made a billion-dollar discovery for the DuPont chemical company.

Fresh out of college, on his first assignment at DuPont, Shiflett invented a product that would prove as environmentally beneficial as it was lucrative. His timing was excellent.

The refrigerant Shiflett invented in 1989 replaced an ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon with an ozone-safe hydrofluorocarbon mixture – just as the international community was banning the widespread use of CFCs in air conditioner and refrigeration systems.

Shiflett, who joins KU as a Foundation Distinguished Professor in chemical and petroleum engineering after 28 years with DuPont, says the company was doing “green chemistry” before it was in vogue.

“Today, consumers are starting to adopt products made with green chemistry,” he says. “But these types of products can cost more to produce.” Markets are volatile, and many companies are reluctant to invest in research and development of green products that may not turn out to be profitable.

Shiflett doesn’t see this as a problem, he sees it as an opportunity for KU. It’s called open innovation.

“Companies are looking to universities to generate more ideas and to initiate research and development,” he says.

What do universities get in return? For starters, research funding and the opportunity to work on projects that are important to industry. Federal funding has been flat and even declining in some areas over the past several years. Industry funding can help make up the difference.

And Shiflett has already attracted millions of dollars in donated equipment from corporate sponsors. “Students will work in world-class facilities and use state-of-the art equipment,” he says. “This, in turn, attracts other companies who want to work with us.”

“The greatest benefit to working with industry will be for our students,” Shiflett says. “Graduate students, post-doctoral students — even undergraduates — will work directly with scientists and engineers in these companies. The industry partners will get to know KU students, and some projects may lead to job opportunities.”

Shiflett has learned that from his own experience. He was hired by DuPont after working for the company as an undergraduate student researcher.

As the Foundation Professor teaches his first classes at KU this spring, he is already nurturing in students the entrepreneurial spirit that inspired him so many years ago. “I want my students to create, design, tinker, and invent something new that can make the world better.”

 

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