Optimization of Carbon-Neutral Production of Methanol Via Direct Air Carbon Capture; An Actor Network Theory and Virtue Ethics Analysis of He Jiankui’s CRISPR-Cas9 Experiments on Human Embryos

He, Zexian, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Anderson, Eric, EN-Chem Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Laugelli, Benjamin, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

My technical work and my STS research are very different in topic. However, they both focus on the application of emerging technology. My technical work focuses on demonstrating how an emerging technology, direct air capture of CO2, contributes to carbon reduction goals. On the other hand, my STS research focuses on analyzing the ethics behind an immoral application of another emerging technology, CRISPR-Cas9. The STS research serves as a supplement to the technical work. While the technical work illustrates how a new technology could benefit humanity, the STS research warns of the potential negative impacts of misusing a new technology.
My technical work consists of two sections: CO2 direct air capture (DAC) and converting the captured carbon dioxide into methanol. In the DAC section, CO2 in air contacts with a thin film of KOH solution in a cross-flow design to chemically bind with the solution and make K2CO3. Then the K2CO3 solution reacts with a slurry of Ca(OH)2 in a fluidized bed reactor to make CaCO3 pellets and regenerate the sorbent KOH. The pellets are sent to a calciner, where temperature is raised to 900℃ to decompose CaCO3 pellets into CO2 gas and CaO pellets. CaO pellets are then sent to a slaker, reacting with water to make Ca(OH)2.
CO2 produced from the above system is used to produce methanol. Two reactions are needed. The first reaction is reverse water-gas shift with ZnO/Al2O3 catalyst that partially converts CO2 and H2 into CO and water. The second reaction is hydrogenation with Cu/ZnO/Al2O3 catalyst that converts CO2, H2 and CO into methanol.
My STS research is an ethical analysis of He Jiankui’s immoral application of CRISPR-Cas9 on embryos. Many authors pointed out He Jiankui’s experiments were immoral because they violated regulations and guidelines, and damaged the human rights of Lulu and Nana, twin girls born as a result of He Jiankui’s experiments. On the other hand, my analysis focuses on the nature of He Jiankui and other human actors involved. Actor Network Theory is applied to reconstruct the network around the CRISPR-Cas9 experiments and evaluate the contributions of human and non-human actors. Then virtue ethics is applied to evaluate the morality of human actors in this network. My argument is that He Jiankui was not the only actor that carried moral responsibility. He could conduct these experiments without hindrance because the adversaries in this network failed to function, as he overpowered them.
My technical work gave me a better understanding of the CO2 DAC process and methanol synthesis. I learned about chemical reactions involved, how to design equipment, economics of such a plant, which illustrated the benefits of a new technology. However, new technology could also harm society when it is misused. This is demonstrated by my STS research on He Jiankui’s CRISPR-Cas9 experiments on embryos. Working on both projects allowed me to rationally examine a new technology, understanding a technology always has a bright and a dark side.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Carbon Capture, Methanol Synthesis, Direct Air Capture, Actor Network Theory, CRISPR-Cas9

School of Engineering and Applied Science

Bachelor or Science in Chemical Engineering

Technical Advisor: Eric Anderson

STS Advisor: Benjamin Laugelli

Technical Team Members: Alexandra Cresci, Nick Hoessle, Cameron Williams

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