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ETHICAL DILEMMA FACED BY A CHEMICAL ENGINEER

Michael Bremer (mjb243@pitt.edu)

INTRODUCTION: ETHICS IN conversions [4]. In order to help make solar thermochemical


ENGINEERING water splitting a more viable option in the production of
hydrogen, new chemicals need to be determined that are
chemically stable, but also have a low production cost [5].
Engineering can do wonders for people around the world. Researchers are now trying to determine these metal oxides
Whether it is making a new type of drug to combat cancer in that so that they can keep the cost of the entire process at a
biomedical engineering, or developing an autonomous car
minimum.
with the help of mechanical engineering, engineers have a
hand in developing in almost everything that we use in our
daily lives. ETHICAL DILEMMA
This goes without saying that engineers have to take care
in the decisions that they make when using their skills to help ITM Power is a hydrogen fuel company that is leading the
solve these challenges. A code of ethics needs to be followed market in producing green hydrogen fuel. As a chemical
in order to make sure that all of the choices that engineers engineer with a minor in environmental engineer, I work at
make are the right ones. One small decision can impact ITM Powers Research and Development Branch. My job
millions of people when dealing with certain problems. It is tasks include developing new and more efficient ways to
pertinent that we, as engineers, use our resources to make produce hydrogen fuel, analyzing current hydrogen
these choices, weighing all of the options and outcomes so production processes to determine the safety of the processes,
that we know it is the correct one. and using my environmental background to determine any
impact the reactions used to produce hydrogen may have on
SOLAR-THERMOCHEMICAL WATER the environment. To this day ITM Power has been focusing
on the process of electrolysis to create hydrogen fuel without
SPLITTING: WHAT IS IT? causing major harm to the environment. In an effort keep up
with the growing demand and increase their production, ITM
Solar thermochemical water splitting produces hydrogen Power created a new branch of the company dedicated to
gas, through a reaction that is driven by sunlight [1]. This creating hydrogen fuel through solar thermochemical water
hydrogen gas can then be used in a hydrogen fuel cell that splitting. My boss tasked me with the job of creating a
powers cars and generators. By using a two-step reaction, reaction that uses a lead based oxide to produce hydrogen gas.
hydrogen can be produced at lower operating temperatures After reviewing this reaction that my boss proposed to me,
that can be achieved from concentrated solar power [2]. These I determined that there may be some concern on whether or
reactions are represented by Z. Wang, a member at the Clean not this process may cause harm to the environment. When
Energy Research Lab at the University of Ontario, as an the vessel in which the reaction takes place reaches high
endothermic reduction reaction where oxygen is produced pressures, steam that has built up in the reactor will blow-off,
from metal oxide, and a hydrolysis reaction where hydrogen venting into the atmosphere. I determined that this steam may
is produced [2]. This reaction is accomplished by splitting a contain a small amount of lead particles that will be released
metal oxide into its components of the metal and oxygen, by into the atmosphere along with the steam. Lead pollution has
using solar power. The metal is then hydrolyzed back into the been shown to have adverse health effects on people causing
original metal oxide, which releases hydrogen gas from the harm to the nervous system, immune system, and
water [1]. cardiovascular system [3]. My results clearly indicated that
Many different types of metal oxides can be used in this this reaction is not environmentally friendly and it has the
reaction. Each type of metal has a different efficiency at potential to cause harm to many individuals in the area where
producing hydrogen gas. Jonathon Scheffe, a thermal science this process is being done.
researcher at the University of Florida, states that ceria based I decided to take these results to my boss and tell him that
metals are capable of achieving remarkably high vacancy using a lead-based oxide is not safe for the environment. I
concentrations at elevated temperatures and low oxygen suggested that ITM Power should use a different compound
partial pressures [4]. A ceria-based metal oxide has the that will not release pollutants into the environment. After
potential to reach 37% efficiency in thermal-to-chemical

University of Pittsburgh, Swanson School of Engineering 1


2015-11-02
Michael Bremer

hearing my concerns, my boss told me to keep the results of may have on the health of the people that it may affect. If ITM
my tests to myself if I want to continue to work at ITM Power, Power went through in their plan to use a lead-based oxide in
stating that he already told the executives of the company that the reaction, a great deal of harm could be done to the people
this process was safe to use. My boss also stated that any in the surrounding areas. As lead particles slowly seeped into
research I have done work on is confidential, and may not be the atmosphere, they would begin to collect, eventually
breached to the general public. He went on to say that the finding their way into water and food sources. This could lead
lead-based oxide will save the company millions of dollars as to adverse health effects such as problems with the: kidneys,
it is a cheaper alternative to any other metal oxide that could nervous system, immune system, reproductive system, and
be used in the reaction. He said that my dedicated work on developmental systems [3]. It is clear that the lead-based
this project would likely lead to a promotion to a more oxide would have many disadvantages in the health and safety
prestigious position at ITM Power. Since he told the of the general public. The lead-based oxide will also cause
executives of the company that it was safe to use, they went harm to the environment as it accumulates in soils and
through with the plans to use this process in mass production sediments. This leads to a wide range of effects that include
of hydrogen fuel. losses of biodiversity and decreased growth in plants and
I am now faced with the ethical dilemma based on what animals.
decision I should make in this situation. On one hand I could The American Institute of Chemical Engineering code of
report this situation to the proper authorities. This will then ethics also states that members shall formally advise their
stop the possibility of people getting injured due to the employers or clients (and further disclosure, if warranted) if
pollutants that would be released from this process. This they perceive that a consequence of their duties will adversely
choice would be defying direct order from my boss to keep affect the present or future health or safety of their colleagues
my findings under wraps, which may cause me to be fired or the public [6]. This cannon of the code of ethics shows
from my job. It would also likely cost ITM Power millions of that as a chemical engineer we must show that a certain
dollars in fines and lost money in the research of the solar process may cause harm to certain individuals.
thermochemical water splitting process plants. On the other Releasing the information that the process of solar
hand I could withhold this information, as my boss asked. In thermochemical water splitting could be dangerous to the
this case I would save my job and please my employer, while environment would be breaking the confidentiality agreement
also maintaining the reputation of ITM Power as a green and could likely result in losing trust in future employers. The
company. National Society of Professional Engineers state that
I will now have to evaluate which of these options makes Engineers shall not disclose, without consent, confidential
ethical sense, using different codes of ethics and case studies information concerning the business affairs or technical
to help me approach my decision. processes of any present or former client or employer, or
public body on which they serve [5]. The American Society
PRESENTING THE FACTS of Professional Engineers have a similar cannon in their
ethical code that states that members shall act in professional
In order to determine what decision I should choose, and matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or
make sure that it is an ethically viable option I must consult a trustees, avoiding conflicts of interest and never breaching
number of sources. The National Society of Professional confidentiality [6]. These cannons show that by reporting the
Engineers, a leading institute of professional engineers from issue of the pollutants being released into the atmosphere, I
around the country, hold themselves to a code of ethics. This would be betraying the trust and confidentiality of my
code is used by the professional engineers in as a reference to employer. I would have to defy a direct order from my boss
allow them to come to decisions, such as the one that I must in which he told me not to report this incident. Since my
come to in my scenario. employer did not give me consent to report this incident,
The first cannon under which these engineers hold which could in turn leak confidential information, I would be
themselves to is that Engineers shall hold paramount the going against the code of ethics by which I, as a professional
safety, health, and welfare of the public [5]. The American engineer, should hold myself to.
Institute of Chemical Engineers holds a code of ethics close Various codes of ethics are not the only things that should
to that of the National Society of Professional Engineers. The dictate how an engineer decides to make a decision. A. El-
first cannon of their code states that members shall hold Zein, a professor of environmental engineering at the
paramount the safety health and welfare of the public and University of Sydney, argues that engineers need to consider
protect the environment in performance of their professional ethics in their work. El-Zein states that the engineers society
duties [6]. These cannons state that when making decisions is producing are what industry requires: engineers able to
in the workplace, engineers must consider the impact that it carry out technically complex projects, rather than

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Michael Bremer

professionals with an in-depth understanding of the social superiors, that I will be taking my findings to the authorities
complexity of technology. In fact we need both [7]. He also before I do so, in order to let them prepare for how they will
states that [engineers] therefore contribute to human responds. Like El-Zein, I believe that ethics are important in
suffering as well as flourishing [7]. Many times throughout chemistry and they need to be held highly, along with the
history engineers have made wrong decision, whether it was technical side of a situation. Chemical engineers need to be
for money or own personal gain. Choosing to allow the lead- responsible in the reactions that they develop, and letting
based reaction to occur, causing vast amounts of lead pollutants vent into the atmosphere would not be the
pollution would make sense on the technical side of things, responsible thing to do. If I do not publish my findings, many
since it saves money for the company, but there is the other people could end up getting hurt and I would not be able to
side to decision, where thousands of people could be injured. live with letting that happen.
Ethics have a special case when it comes to chemistry. Although I may be fired from my position at ITM Power
According to J. Kovac, a chemistry professor at the University for leaking confidential information, I believe that I have
of Tennessee, This presents an interesting ethical question. made the right decision. My boss may also be held
The production of new knowledge is widely accepted as being accountable for his actions so that any future employee will
a good thing to do, but in the synthesis of a new compound on not have to face a dilemma similar to.
is also creating uncertainty, which is generally not thought to
be good [8]. When doing chemistry, engineers need to be RECOMMENDATION TO OTHER
constantly aware of the reactions that they are doing, making ENGINEERS
sure that products and reactants are creating what they are
supposed to create. Kovac states that the synthesis of a
chemical can create a new compound [that] is a potent This dilemma is not the only one that engineers are facing
on a daily basis. All around the world, people are facing tough
neurotoxin or an explosive or a precursor to such substance
[8]. This is apparent in my ethical dilemma since the reaction decisions that may impact future generations. After reviewing
allows small amounts of lead could be toxic to humans and all of these documents, I believe that I could help other
the wildlife in the area. engineers come to a decision.
An ethical dilemma that is apparent in current times is the I believe that the codes of ethics provided to professional
engineers should be held highly and most decisions can be
emissions scandal at Volkswagen. The car company lied to
the public when they said that their cars were clean for the based off of these ethics. Sometimes, like in my dilemma, two
cannons in the code may contradict each other. In this case, I
environment. Instead the cars caused hundreds of times more
pollution than the average car. Volkswagen put a program in would look to which seems more important in their ethical
the car to falsify any tests done on the car to make it seem like standards.
it was not polluting as much as it was. This decision could
lead to as many as 60 premature deaths, as an MIT study CONCLUSION
reports [9]. The men that made the ethical decision to allow
these pollutants into the environment did not clearly think Ethics and engineering go hand in hand. Almost all of the
about the impact that it may have. decisions that an engineer makes references some ethical code
Lastly, when making a decision I often contact my high in order to come to that decision. Engineers must use these
school engineering design teacher. He gave me great advice codes and follow the cannons if they want to make the
in a variety of situations throughout my high school career. ethically correct decision.
He always made it known that he wanted us to do what we Without these ethics, engineers could be creating terrible
thought was right, and that came first when making a decision things, such as a bombs that could fall into the wrong hand of
[10]. terrorists. Engineers need to be held to these ethical standards
like other professions are around the world. As El-Zein states
MY DECISION when doctors or nurses use their knowledge of anatomy in
order to torture or conduct medical experiments on helpless
After consulting numerous sources I believe that I can subjects, we are rightly outraged [7].
come to an appropriate decision on how to handle this ethical Engineers face problems that are similar to these, and
dilemma. I have decided to report this situation to the proper holding them to an ethical code makes it less likely that they
authorities, going against my bosss orders. I believe that the will be making the wrong decision when facing an ethical
health and safety of the many, outweighs the need to keep dilemma.
confidentiality in the workplace. I will alert my boss, and his

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Michael Bremer

REFERENCES [3] (2014) The Cost of Integrity Ethics Case Studies (online
case study)
[1] E. Bozoglan (2012) Sustainable assessment of solar http://www.webguru.neu.edu/professionalism/case-
studies/cost-integrity
hydrogen production techniques Energy and Exergy
Modeling of Advance Energy Systems (online article) DOI:
10.1016/j.energy.2012.03.029 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
[2] Z. Wang (2012) Comparison of thermochemical,
electrolytic, photoelectrolytic and photochemical solar-to- I would like to thank my friend Jenn for helping me
hydrogen production technologies International Journal of review this paper. I would also like to thank the staff of the
Hydrogen Energy (online article) DIO: Hillman Library for allowing the library to stay open twenty
10.1016/j/ijhydene.2012.03.057 four hours a day, which provided me a place to work on this
[3] United States Environmental Protection Agency (2015) paper.
Lead in Air Air Quality (website)
http://www3.epa.gov/airquality/lead/
[4] J. Scheffe, A. Steinfeld (2012) Thermodynamic Analysis
of Cerium-Based Oxides for Solar Thermochemical Fuel
Production American Chemical Society (online article) DOI:
10.1021/ef201875v
[5] (2007) Code of Ethics for Engineers National Society of
Professional Engineers (online report)
http://www.nspe.org/sites/default/files/resources/pdfs/Ethics/
CodeofEthics/Code-2007-July.pdf
[6] Code of Ethics American Institute of Chemical
Engineers (online report) http://www.aiche.org/about/code-
ethics
[7] A. El-Zein (2013) As engineers, we must consider the
ethical implications of our work The Guardian (online
article)
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/05/en
gineering-moral-effects-technology-impact
[8] J. Kovac (2015) Ethics in Science: The Unique
Consequence of Chemistry Accountability in Research:
Policies and Quality Assurance (online article) DOI:
10.1080/08989621.2015.1047709
[9] E Ferreira (2015) Volkswagen excess emissions could
cause 60 premature deaths in the US Pulse Headlines (online
article) http://www.pulseheadlines.com/60-premature-
deaths-caused-emissions-excess-volkswagen-vehicles/9663/
[10] G Dececco. High School Teacher

ADDITIONAL SOURCES

[1] (2014) Pubilc Health and Saftey-Delay in Addressing


Fire Code Violations NSPE (online case study) Case No. 13-
11
http://www.nspe.org/sites/default/files/BER%20Case%20No
%2013-11-FINAL.pdf
[2] (2015) Id Rather Be Fishing Texas Tech University
Ethics Cases (online case study) Case-1039
http://www.depts.ttu.edu/murdoughcenter/products/cases.ph
p