Now 35 years in, the ACRC is as impactful as ever

7/31/2023 Julia Park

As the sole Director of the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Center, which is now 35 years old, Prof. Nenad Miljkovic envisions an exciting future for the Center, as electrification and decarbonization create new engineering challenges for its researchers and industry partners.

Written by Julia Park

In the late 1980s, damage to the ozone layer began to rapidly increase. This was due in part to an accelerated introduction of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)—and other compounds that contain chlorine—into the ozone layer. Under proper conditions, chlorine can destroy large amounts of the ozone, so international agreements began limiting certain refrigerants. At the time, a DuPont executive and Illinois alumnus knew that the university was working on research for automobile and refrigeration companies, and he returned to the university to propose a collaboration to address this issue.

Nenad Miljkovic, Director of ACRC
Nenad Miljkovic, Director of the ACRC at Illinois.

MechSE Professor Clark Bullard (now professor emeritus) helped facilitate grants from the estate of Richard W. Kritzer, the Illinois Governors’ Science Advisory Council, and the National Science Foundation. He also suggested expanding this research endeavor to include other companies across the industry. With this introduction, the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Center (ACRC) at the University of Illinois was born, with Bullard and Roy Crawford (then an assistant professor in MechSE) leading the charge.

Incredibly, this year marks the 35th anniversary of the ACRC.

“From the beginning we designed ACRC to operate on a model similar to the modern research hospital, where research priorities are set by the client. Engineers, like doctors, are problem solvers and could be trained in a similar way, consistent with the tradition of land grant universities of the 1860s where students learned-by-doing and carried knowledge of the agricultural and mechanical arts back to the farms and factories of Illinois. A startup grant from NSF for the grand sum of $50k/year enabled our students to interact directly with their industry counterparts twice per year in our labs, and to visit their labs. The land grant model still operates, as our faculty and students help accelerate industrial innovation to meet evolving national goals,” Bullard said.

The ACRC has been funded entirely by industry support for the last 25 years, and the relationship is mutually beneficial. Companies use the center’s research findings to improve upon and create new product designs, and the researchers publish work that can then be applied. The Center’s ability to leverage industrial know-how and scale with Illinois’ fundamental science have resulted in competitive multi-year federal grants. This industry-university collaboration has been at the heart of the ACRC since its creation. At their annual brainstorming session, the industry advisory board ranks the issues they need to address, and center researchers select the topics they will work on.

The Center also educates and enables undergraduate and graduate students, as well as engineers from the HVAC&R industry, to address energy- and environment-related challenges of the 21st century through adherence to the most rigorous academic standards in their research.

Founder Professor Nenad Miljkovic is the current Director of the ACRC. “The future of ACRC is exciting. Current and future trends of electrification and decarbonization are creating engineering challenges for several industrial sectors relevant to the ACRC. From electrified vehicles to thermal management of data centers to low global warming refrigerants, our research output, as well as our graduates are well positioned to work on and solve these challenges in the 21st century. We look forward to continuing to make contributions and educate the students needed to solve these important challenges, and hopefully make the future a better place for all,” he said.

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This story was published July 31, 2023.