Design of a Processing Plant for the Extraction of Lithium from Geothermal Brines in the Salton Sea, California & A Care Ethics Analysis of BP and its Role in the Texas City Isomerization Unit Explosion

Hall, Hailey, 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 report and STS research are connected through concepts of process safety, which encompasses the safe and effective design and maintenance of chemical facilities. Understanding hazards in process design is key to developing safer, more sustainable plants and units in chemical engineering systems. Though my STS research focuses on refining and my technical work encompasses lithium production, the need to minimize process hazards through inherently safer design and process management is essential across all chemical fields. By assessing risks and hazards in my STS thesis and developing a safe production process through my technical work, the importance of process safety through the entire lifecycle of a chemical facility is emphasized. Applying safety principles across various types of chemical processes provides opportunities to highlight the skills and creativity needed to implement hazard mitigating safeguards and promote strong safety culture.
The technical portion of my thesis focuses on lithium capture from geothermal brines using a novel technique developed by professors within the chemical engineering department. My capstone team designed a chemical processing unit to be retrofitted onto an existing geothermal power plant for the extraction and purification of lithium. The end product of our process is battery-grade lithium hydroxide monohydrate for use in electric vehicle batteries or grid-scale energy storage. My team designed the lithium extraction plant using hand calculations and ASPEN simulations to model brine properties. The proposed design utilizes environmentally friendly techniques to remove lithium from geothermal brines and is a net producer of water in an arid region of the United States. Throughout our design process, we considered risks and hazards to develop inherently safer units. We believe that our lithium extraction plant would increase the use and accessibility of green technologies while also providing a blueprint for a safer, more eco-friendly lithium production process.
My STS research studies the BP Texas City isomerization unit explosion that occurred in 2005. Numerous factors leading up to the incident caused safety to deteriorate within the plant, ultimately claiming the lives of 15 contractors. Care ethics, developed by Nel Noddings and Carol Gilligan, provides a framework to assess morality based on actions and attitudes of care. Using this framework, I claim that BP did not provide sufficient care to its Texas City site leading up to the incident. Through this analysis, I consider the aspects of care that BP neglected to provide and the safety shortages that contributed to the disaster. The care ethics analysis can easily be extended to other cases and highlights the importance of safety both in initial design and upkeep of a plant. Through this research, I hope to emphasize the importance of care and thus safety in chemical processing.
By performing my STS research and technical work simultaneously, each portion of my thesis helped inform and influence the other while enriching both. My technical design involved the selection of safe process materials and reliable equipment for use in a chemical plant, helping me better recognize shortcomings in care within my STS thesis case. At the same time, my STS thesis helped me identify ways to make inherently safer choices in my technical process and helped me conceptualize care in design. Together, the STS and technical papers built upon one another constructively to stress the importance of providing safe working conditions throughout the entire lifespan of a chemical manufacturing facility.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
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