AN EDUCATIONAL CASE STUDY COMBINING SCIENTIFIC INNOVATION, HISTORY, AND ETHICAL ISSUES IN CHEMICAL ENGINEERING
University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU (SPAIN)
About this paper:
Appears in: ICERI2015 Proceedings
Publication year: 2015
Conference name: 8th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation
Dates: 18-20 November, 2015
Location: Seville, Spain
Abstract:Innovation is the catalyst that makes businesses thrive and improves quality of life. Students studying for a degree in chemical engineering and industrial organization engineering are frequently instructed on business management and competitiveness rather than on business ethics. Nevertheless, although human beings have been the instigators of all technological innovations, historical events have played a key role in the final development and application of technology. In an attempt to learn from past experience (and mistakes), business ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility have timidly appeared in the technological market. Consequently, four factors, namely, education, innovation, historical events and ethics, have jointly determined the final application and consequences of many scientific advances that have changed the history of the world. This study seeks to illustrate the interactions and consequences involving these four factors by selecting the ammonia synthesis process, which can be considered one of the chemical industry’s most important twentieth-century innovations.
According to the OECD or Oslo report, the three main steps in any innovation process are as follows:
- The first step is knowledge generation and/or acquisition, which involves technological research and development.
In the 19th century, Marcellin Berthelot established the elemental composition of ammonia, but until then no one had been able to synthesize this compound. Fritz Haber (1868 – 1934) was a German chemist who was clearly energized by the challenges that had defeated others, particularly technical problems of immense practical significance, whose solution required a sophisticated application of theoretical knowledge, as well as tremendous concentration and hard work. He developed a revolutionary method for synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen in the air.
- The second step is the preparation for production, which involves product design, process scale-up, and the actual launch of production.
The combination of Haber´s original method with Bosch´s engineering innovations for producing ammonia led to what is known as the Haber-Bosch process. In 1909, the process was successfully scaled up to produce commercial quantities of ammonia. The Haber–Bosch process was a milestone in industrial chemistry.
- The third step is the preparation for marketing, with the aim being to reduce business risk.
The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 meant that much of the ammonia produced was soon being used to make explosives, rather than the nitrogen-based fertilizers that had played a crucial role in improving agricultural yields. The war highlighted the way in which a scientific innovation could be used both to sustain life and to destroy it.
Although ethics concern an individual's moral judgement over what is right and wrong, the final use of the innovation determines its ethical value. The selected example is a case-based study for instructing students on the relationship between innovation, historical context and ethical issues.
Keywords: Innovation, ethical issues, case study, history.