Case enhancement: Power-to-food technologies

Activity: An ethical evaluation of the technology and its impacts.

Author: Dr Fiona Truscott (UCL).



This enhancement is for an activity found in the Dilemma Part one, Point 1 section of the case: “Identify different aspects of the production process where ethical concerns may arise, from production to delivery to consumption.” Below are prompts for discussion questions and activities that can be used. Each prompt could take up as little or as much time as the educator wishes, depending on where they want the focus of the discussion to be.

In this group activity, students will act as consultants brought in by the Power to Food team to create an ethical evaluation of the technology and any impacts it may have throughout its lifetime. The aim here is for students to work together to discuss the potential ethical issues at each stage of the production process as well as thinking about how they might be addressed. Groups will need to do research, either in class or at home. Depending on the timeframe you may want to give them a starting point and some basic information found in the case study’s learning and teaching resources.


Suggested timeline:


Team briefing:

You are a team of consultants brought in by the company who has developed Power to Food technology. Before they go to market they want to understand the ethical issues that may arise from the technology and address them if possible. They want you to look at the process as a whole and identify any ethical issues that might come up. They also want to know how easy these issues might be to address and want you to suggest potential ways to address them. You will need to provide the company with a briefing on your findings.



It’s useful to give teams some frameworks through which they can do an analysis of the production process. One of those is to discuss who is harmed by the process at each stage. This is harm in the widest possible sense: physical, environment, political, reputational etc. What or who could be impacted and how? Another framework is the values of the people or entities involved in the process: what are they trying to achieve or what do they want and are any of these in conflict? Topics such as sustainability and accessibility also have an ethical dimension, and using these as a lens can help students to look at the problem from a different viewpoint.


Prompts for questions:

These are questions that you can get students to answer in class or suggest that they cover in an assessment. This could also be information you give the team so that they can use it as a foundation.



This group activity lends itself to a few different assessment formats, depending on what fits with your programme and timeframe. The two key things to assess are whether students can understand and identify ethical issues across the whole Power to Food production process and whether they can discuss ways to address these issues and the complexities that can be involved in addressing these issues. These two things can be assessed separately; for example through a written report where teams discuss the potential issues and a presentation where they talk about how they might address these issues. Or one assessment can cover both topics. This can be a written report, a live or recorded presentation, a video, podcast or a poster. Teams being able to see other teams’ contributions is both a good way of getting them to discuss different viewpoints and makes for a fun session. You can get teams to present their final work or a draft to each other.

Depending on the timeframe, you may also want to build in some skills assessment too. The AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics are a great starting point for assessing skills and IPAC is a good tool for assessing teamwork via peer assessment.


Marking Criteria:

Good Average Poor
Understanding and identification of ethics issues across the whole Power to Food production process Has identified and understood context specific ethical issues across the production process. May have shown some understanding of how issues may impact on each other. Has identified and understood broad/general ethical issues around production processes but hasn’t linked much to the specific context of the case study. Some stages may be more detailed than others. Has not identified many or any ethical issues and seems to have not understood what we’re looking for.
Discussing ways to address these issues and the complexities that can be involved Has identified context specific ways to address the ethical issues raised and has understood the potential complexities of addressing those ethical issues. Has identified broad/general ways to address the ethical issues raised and made some reference to differing levels of complexity in addressing ethical issues. Has not identified many or any ways to address the ethical issues raised and seems to have not understood what we’re looking for.
Communication Very clear, engaging and easy to understand communication of the ethical issues involved and ways to address them. Right language level for the audience. Generally understandable but not clear in places or uses the wrong level of language for the audience (assumes too much or not enough prior knowledge). Difficult to understand the point being made either due to language used or disconnection to the point of the assessment or topic.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Authors: Professor Thomas Lennerfors (Uppsala University); Nina Fowler (Uppsala University); Johnny Rich (Engineering Professors’ Council); Professor Dawn Bonfield MBE (Aston University); Professor Chike Oduoza (University of Wolverhampton); Steven Kerry (Rolls-Royce); Isobel Grimley (Engineering Professors’ Council).

Topic: Alternative food production.

Engineering disciplines: Energy; Chemical engineering.

Ethical issues: Sustainability; Social responsibility.

Professional situations: Public health and safety; Personal/professional reputation; Falsifying or misconstruing data / finances; Communication.

Educational level: Advanced.

Educational aim: Practise ethical reasoning. Ethical reasoning applies critical analysis to specific events in order to evaluate, and respond, to problems in a fair and responsible way.


Learning and teaching notes:

This case involves an engineer navigating multiple demands on a work project. The engineer must evaluate trade-offs between social needs, technical specifications, financial limitations, environmental needs, legal requirements, and safety. Some of these factors have obvious ethical dimensions, and others are more ambiguous. The engineer must also navigate a professional scenario in which different stakeholders try to influence the resolution of the dilemma.

This case study addresses two of AHEP 4’s themes: The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37.

The dilemma in this case is presented in two parts. If desired, a teacher can use Part one in isolation, but Part two develops and complicates the concepts presented in Part one to provide for additional learning. The case allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and / or activities as desired.

Learners have the opportunity to:

Teachers have the opportunity to: 


Learning and teaching resources:



Power-to-X (P2X) describes a number of pathways for the transformation of electricity to alternative forms. This can be utilised for storing energy for later use, in order to balance periods of excesses and deficits resulting from the use of renewable energy technologies. It can also be used in applications that do not use electricity, such as through the transformation of electricity to hydrogen or other gases for industrial use.

One area that has seen significant development in recent years is power-to-food (PtF). This pathway results in CO2 being transformed, through chemical or biological processes powered by renewable energy, into food. One such process uses electrolysis and the Calvin cycle to create hydrocarbons from CO2, water and bacteria. The end result is a microbial protein, a substance that could be used in animal feed. Ultimately, the technology could produce a meat alternative suitable for human consumption, further reducing the carbon emissions produced by intensive animal farming.


Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Activity: Identify the potential harms and risks of this technology, both objective and subjective. For example, could the shift of food production from soil to chemical industries concentrate power in the hands of a few? What public perceptions or cultural values might impact the acceptance or uptake of the technology? 

2. Discussion: Wider context – What social, technological, economic, environmental, political, or legal factors might need to be considered in order to implement this technology?

3. Activity: Research companies that are currently developing P2X technologies. Which industries and governments are promoting P2X? How successful have early projects been? What obstacles exist in upscaling?

4. Activity: Undertake a technical activity in the area of biochemical engineering related to the storing and transforming of renewable energy.


Dilemma – Part one:

You are the Chief Technical Officer at a company that has developed PtF technology that can convert CO2 to edible fatty acids (or triglycerides). The potential of CO2 capture is attractive to many stakeholders, but the combination of carbon reduction tied in with food production has generated positive media interest. The company also intends to establish its PtF facility near a major carbon polluter, that will reduce transport costs. However, some nearby residents are concerned about having a new industrial facility in their area, and have raised additional concerns about creating unsafe food.

As part of the process to commercialise this technology, you have been tasked with completing an ethical assessment. This includes an analysis of the technology’s short and long-term effects in a commercial application.


Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion and Activity: Identify different aspects of the production process where ethical concerns may arise, from production to delivery to consumption. Which ethical issues do you consider to be the most challenging to address?

2. Discussion: What cultural values might impact the ethical assessment? Does trust play a role in our ethical and consumption decisions? What internal logics / business goals might steer, or influence, the acceptance of various ethical considerations?

3. Discussion: Which areas of the ethical assessment might stakeholders be most interested in, or concerned about, and why?

4. Discussion: Does the choice of location for PtF facilities influence the ethical assessment? What problems could this PtF technology solve?

5. Discussion: What competing values or motivations might come into conflict in this scenario? What codes, standards, or authoritative bodies might be relevant to this? What is the role of ethics in technology development?

6. Activity: Assemble a bibliography of relevant professional codes, standards, and authorities.

7. Activity: Research the introduction of novel foods throughout history and / or engineering innovations in food production.

8. Activity: Write up the ethical assessment of the business case, and include findings from the previous questions and research.


Dilemma – Part two:

You deliver your ethical assessment to your manager. Shortly afterwards you are asked to edit the report to remove or downplay some ethical issues you have raised. The company leadership is worried that potential investors in an upcoming financing round may be dissuaded from investing in the company if you do not edit these sections.


Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: Professional and ethical responsibilities – What are the ethical implications of editing or not editing the report? What consequences could this type of editing have? Think about stakeholders such as the company, potential investors and society.

2. Discussion: Wider considerations of business ethics – How would you recognise an ethical organisation? What are its characteristics? What is the role of ethics in business?



An enhancement for this case study can be found here.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

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