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What's In Your Briefcase, Mark Shiflett?
Daryl Bell

"A Saturn V model rocket," said Mark Shiflett, Foundation Distinguished Professor and director of the Institute for Sustainable Engineering at KU. “Engineers designed those rockets, and that inspired me to become an engineer. In fact, Neil Armstrong — the first human who stepped foot on the moon — once said ‘I’m proud to be an engineer.’” The quote provides daily inspiration on the lab’s wall for students.

Since childhood, Shiflett has been captivated by building things, from train sets to electronics to model rockets. He translated his passion for mathematics and chemistry to the real world and followed in his father’s footsteps in engineering. This generational spirit lives on as Shiflett views his students as his greatest accomplishment, imparting his passion to future engineers.

With a career that began at DuPont, Shiflett invented three new refrigerants that are now used worldwide. This breakthrough replaced chlorofluorocarbons, linked to the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer. Today, the professor’s concern for the Earth is reflected in his students’ research. “Many of the problems we work on are brought to us by industry,” he said. “Our students are studying how to recycle refrigerants and critical metals like lithium and cobalt used in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.”

Shiflett is enthusiastic about the initiatives underway at the institute. Refrigerant research continues through the Environmentally Applied Refrigerant Technology Hub (EARTH), which has attracted interest from 25 companies. He goes beyond expectations, encouraging students to develop career-ready communication and leadership skills by presenting at conferences, publishing in journals and mentoring. The institute also established a start-up company to commercialize technology for separating refrigerants, owned and operated by students.

Shiflett likens running a lab to managing a small business. While funding comes from proposals and industry support, philanthropy plays a critical role in providing stability and educational experiences. With state-of-the-art equipment, the department is attracting top talent to the program and its research. “These facilities are some of the best you’ll find anywhere across the U.S.,” he said. “I’m sure you remember the quote from the movie Field of Dreams: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ It’s true.”

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