How will the world be able to meet its future energy needs? This is certainly a hotly debated issue in today’s scientific and engineering communities, and perhaps even more so among entrepreneurs, politicians, and environmentalists. In Overpotential, Matthew Eisler demonstrates that historians can and should contribute to the energy debate. His topic is the “fuel cell,” an arguably revolutionary energy technology that has featured prominently in visions of sustainable development during the past two decades or so, but which so far has not become commercially viable. [End Page 765]
Originally conceived in the 1880s, the fuel-cell idea was based on the dream of reversing water electrolysis, that is, of merging hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical reaction to produce electricity (and water). Underlying this idea was a dissatisfaction among scientists and inventors with the huge but inevitable energy losses in the thermal combustion of fossil fuels. Oxidizing such fuels electrochemically was perceived as an ingenious way of improving efficiency. Later actors took interest in the fuel cell for other reasons as well. They believed fuel-cell systems would be light, silent, exceptionally long-lived, and environmentally sound. As it turned out, their materialization was anything but simple.
Development took off in earnest after the Second World War, with fuel-cell visionaries often finding funds in the wake of various crises. The British mechanical engineer Francis Thomas Bacon, for example, managed to raise money for his pioneering version of the fuel cell in connection with the 1946–47 British fuel crisis. American researchers, for their part, took the 1957 Sputnik shock as a point of departure for several projects. Expensive fuel-cell devices were used in the Vietnam War (for powering portable radio stations) and, most famously, by NASA in its Apollo and Gemini projects. In the 1970s, the oil crises and growing environmental awareness generated additional opportunities, in which the main focus was on the use of fuel cells for producing electricity in stationary devices. Fuel cells as an alternative to the internal combustion engine in road vehicles emerged in earnest only in the 1990s.
Perhaps Eisler’s most important point is that, throughout the period of investigation, fuel-cell enthusiasts were highly skilled at building impressive demonstration facilities which, however, were totally misleading as indicators of actual technological progress. Public demonstration shows were overly simplified events that hid the actual technical and commercial difficulties. Politicians, journalists, and the general public failed to grasp what was really happening in the scientific and engineering community. Had they done so, R&D activities might have evaporated early on.
Another intriguing theme is that of the fuel cell as a conservative rather than a revolutionary technology. The simplest fuel cells used hydrogen, but since hydrogen was—and is—expensive to produce, fuel-cell visionaries early on set about developing cells that would run on more complex substances such as gasoline or methane. Gasoline was extremely attractive to automotive fuel-cell developers, as it would have allowed fuel cell–powered vehicles to use an already existing infrastructure of filling stations and the like. The natural gas industry, for its part, fancied the use of methane-fueled cells at the end of existing natural gas pipelines, hoping this would enable gas companies to diversify their business into electricity production. Some even thought this would make the electricity grid obsolete.
Eisler skillfully traces the fuel cell’s career in the period from 1945 to today, mainly with an emphasis on the United States, but with many [End Page 766] glimpses from other parts of the world. One chapter is devoted to early British fuel-cell developments. The author is at his best when he delves into the technical details and interlinks these with political and economic trends. His argument that the history of the fuel cell tells us something important about “US-style utopian techno-futurism” (p. 6) is less convincing. The hydrogen futurism he analyzes, in an excellently written chapter, is much more international than American.
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