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Overpotential: Fuel Cells, Futurism, and the Making of a Power Panacea

Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 274
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    It sounds so simple. Just combine oxygen and hydrogen in an electrochemical reaction that produces water and electricity, and you'll have a clean, efficient power source. But scientists have spent decades-and billions of dollars in government and industry funding-developing the fuel cell. There have been successes and serendipitous discoveries along the way, but engineering a fuel cell that is both durable and affordable has proved extraordinarily difficult.

    Overpotentialcharts the twists and turns in the ongoing quest to create the perfect fuel cell. By exploring the gap between the theory and practice of fuel cell power, Matthew N. Eisler opens a window into broader issues in the history of science, technology, and society after the Second World War, including the sociology of laboratory life, the relationship between academe, industry, and government in developing advanced technologies, the role of technology in environmental and pollution politics, and the rise of utopian discourse in science and engineering.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5199-9
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Fuel Cell Futurism
    (pp. 1-17)

    For a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was nearly impossible to read popular literature on science and technology without encountering praise for the fuel cell. Lauded by engineers, scientists, and policymakers, the device, which converts chemical energy into electrical energy, was then a virtual byword for sustainable power. The technology had an unusually broad appeal. At the core of its popularity was the belief that it was a kind of electrochemical engine, a universal chemical energy converter capable of running on any hydrogenous fuel, combining the best features of the internal combustion engine and the galvanic...

  5. 1 Device in Search of a Role
    (pp. 18-33)

    The modern dream of miracle electrochemical energy conversion may be said to have originated with an obscure English inventor with a distinguished pedigree. Working in the leafy environs of the ancient university city of Cambridge, the mechanical engineer Francis Thomas Bacon, a descendent of Sir Nicholas Bacon, the father of the seventeenth-century English lawyer-philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, developed what would become widely acknowledged as the first practical fuel cell.¹ Bacon occupies an unusual place in England’s pantheon of illustrious technologists, for he gained fame for inventing a device that by most conventional standards was a failure. Employed in the 1930s...

  6. 2 Military Miracle Battery
    (pp. 34-65)

    In 1960, eight students at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Business published an analysis of the technical and economic feasibility of fuel cells. The preface to their 160-page study featured selections from the 1875 edition of theCongressional Recordheralding the era of the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine. This technology, theRecorddeclared, would begin a “new era in the history of civilization,” one potentially more revolutionary than the “invention of the wheel, the use of metals, or the steam engine.” But developing and adopting the new technology would present major cost and technical challenges and introduce considerable socioeconomic dislocation....

  7. 3 Fuel Cells and the Final Frontier
    (pp. 66-81)

    Of the postwar fuel cell enterprises, the programs sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1960s and early 1970s were the largest, best funded, and had the highest profile until the automobile-centered boom of the 1990s and 2000s. From 1962, NASA served as a sponsor and customer of hydrogen fuel cells, paying contractors tens of millions of dollars to build systems for the Gemini, Apollo, and Shuttle spacecraft. More than any previous patron, the space agency introduced fuel cell technology to the public and informed broader expectations of its potential. As with the Bacon cell in Britain,...

  8. 4 Dawn of the Commercial Fuel Cell
    (pp. 82-97)

    The path to commercial terrestrial fuel cell power was far longer and more convoluted than even the more clear-eyed of its early champions might have guessed. Only in the early 1990s did a model—the PC-25, a phosphoric acid fuel cell (PAFC)—appear on the market. Its provenance can be traced back to the height the Cold War in the early 1960s, a period when Pratt & Whitney first entered the fuel cell field, ostensibly to develop a commercial terrestrial variant. Instead, the company became wholly absorbed in the aerospace fuel cell project, one governed by the technopolitical imperative of performance...

  9. 5 Fueling Hydrogen Futurism
    (pp. 98-124)

    Ever since Grove and Schönbein first succeeded in electro-oxidizing hydrogen in the mid-nineteenth century, researchers associated hydrogen and fuel cells. In large measure, the history of fuel cell research and development has been characterized by a central lexical muddle: the term “fuel cell” was coined by Mond and Langer to denote a hypothetical device that produced electricity by electro-oxidizing the hydrogen bound up in carbonaceous fuels. Yet the first practical devices to be so-referred used pure hydrogen and were more properly termed hydrogen fuel cells. Over the years, this crucial distinction was elided by sponsors, pundits, politicians, the media, and,...

  10. 6 Green Automobile Wars
    (pp. 125-156)

    In early 1993, a low-slung, racy sports coupe with a massive, incongruous power plant jutting from its rear deck appeared in the parking lot of an obscure West Palm Beach research and development start-up known as Energy Partners. Expensive, exotic vehicles were not uncommon along a stretch of Florida coastline dotted with affluent communities. Even by these standards, however, the automobile, dubbed the “Green Car” by its inventors, was unique. Although Ballard Power Systems was then emerging as the premier developer of proton exchange membrane fuel cell technology, testing it in an electric bus at around the same time, the...

  11. 7 Electrochemical Millennium
    (pp. 157-183)

    The buildup of fuel cell research formed part of a cresting wave of technoscientific positivism during the 1990s, a widespread belief that advanced science and technology had an almost unlimited potential to reshape society for the better. For the industrially advanced countries, it had been a decade of relative peace, prosperity, and achievement in science and technology, particularly in the fields of biotechnology and, above all, electronics. There was a pervasive air of expectation, a mix of euphoria and apprehension at what the new century held in store, a feeling among observers in political, industry, and environmental circles that a...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 184-194)

    The question of why certain technologies failed to meet commercial expectations is voiced frequently in media, business, political, and science and engineering circles, although the onus to offer a convincing explanation is often shirked. That question is one of the organizing principles of this book. In this and other examples, however, it may not be entirely appropriate, for it can reinforce the assumption that because material ubiquity is the criterion of commercial success, then that, hence, is what makes artifacts historically significant. Success is a relative term, and as history demonstrates, fuel cells have given some practical service over the...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 195-246)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 247-260)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 261-262)