Design of a Processing Plant for the Extraction of Lithium from Geothermal Brines in the Salton Sea, California & Fire on Water: A Care Ethics Analysis of the Management of British Petroleum and Transocean on the Tragedy of Deepwater Horizon

Ferguson, William, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Anderson, Eric, Chemical Engineering, University of Virginia

My technical project and STS research paper are coupled through the lens of chemical process design and safety, seeking to understand their potential influences on the development of future chemical processes. In process design, lab-bench research is scaled up to large operations and extends the accessibility of a novel product; often, design and safety are complementary and influence each other, making both aspects fundamental parts of my technical and STS research projects. My work explores different process design and safety settings; my technical project designs a novel, environmentally conscious process for lithium extraction and identifies its respective safety hazards. My STS research studies a deep-water drilling operation and its safety operations that unfortunately led to one of the greatest environmental disasters. While my technical and STS research examine two vastly different cases, they both nonetheless touch on the importance of process design and safety in the development of chemical processes.
My technical project outlines a novel chemical operation. My capstone team developed a process that implements environmental and safety considerations in the extraction of lithium in California’s Salton Sea area. Current infrastructure in the region pumps large amounts of lithium rich brine to the surface to generate electricity; instead of sending the brine back into the ground, our process is to be retrofitted onto the existing geothermal power plants to capture lithium and convert it into battery grade materials to meet the growing lithium demand. Our process builds upon cutting-edge research conducted by professors at the University of Virginia who have developed novel, environmentally conscious materials to aid in selective capture of lithium and help replace current damaging practices. My capstone team developed process flow diagrams, designed the equipment, and ran economic analyses to access the viability of our chemical process. We hope to show economic and technical promise and thus promote the funding of lithium capture infrastructure in the Salton Sea region to meet rising lithium demands.
My STS research also explores chemical process design and safety; however, my analysis uses a case that led to one of the greatest environmental disasters and oil spills in the world: Deepwater Horizon. With this research, I hope to illustrate the case’s implications on future process designs and operations. Developed by Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings, care ethics is utilized to address relationships between plant managers and operators and the moral culpability of plant managers’ actions that led to the disaster. My claim is that a morally deficient managerial presence can allow for poor design, operation, and thus safety choices. My investigation exploring Deepwater Horizon seeks to examine necessary aspects of care and their broader implications when designing novel processes. I hope to develop discussion of the importance of company management in process design and safety.
Addressing these projects simultaneously allowed for the technical and STS research portions to complement each other, adding great value to both. My work developing a lithium extraction process gave me hands on experience in novel process design and provided the fundamental knowledge necessary to assess technical aspects in the STS analysis. My research for the STS portion of the project helped guide me through the importance of safer process design and aspects of care needed in plant operation; understanding failed processes allowed me to consider additional factors when designing my own. Simultaneously working on both the technical and STS research paper has allowed me to understand how past chemical processes, regardless of their final product, can have broader implications on novel process designs; thus, both aspects of my work have substantially contributed to each other.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
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