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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Overpotential charts 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.

Excerpt

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 battery without their handicaps. Compelled by the California Air Resources Board and its Zero-Emission Vehicle mandate of 1990 to market electric passenger vehicles in ever-increasing quantities, the automobile industry saw the fuel cell as a power source superior to the conventional galvanic battery, both because it seemed to afford a much longer range and because it seemed to promise less disruption of the established liquid-fuel automotive culture. Instead of having to reorder their lives around the lengthy recharge period of a conventional battery, consumers could top up their fuel cell electric vehicles with a liquid fuel in minutes. For this reason, fuel cells were also investigated by the oil industry, which hoped to supply the specialized fuels required by the energy conversion technology if it became commercialized and ubiquitous.

Dramatic advances in the state of the art were often followed by predictions of an impending revolution in power source technology, one that would allow consumers to continue to enjoy the comfort and convenience of the modern automobile while accommodating their green sensibilities. Even the White House promoted the technology, framing the hydrogen fuel cell applied in electric vehicles as a power panacea. Billions of dollars flowed into research, mainly from the automobile industry and also from the United States Department of . . .

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