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

Matthew N. Eisler

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Studies in Modern Science, Technology, and the Environment

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii

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pp. ix

I have much gratitude for the many persons and organizations that helped make this book possible. I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, the IEEE History Center, and the Institute of Historical Research/...

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Introduction. Fuel Cell Futurism

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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....

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Chapter 1. Device in Search of a Role

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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...

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Chapter 2. Military Miracle Battery

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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 the Congressional Record heralding the era of the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine. This technology, the Record declared, would begin a “new era in...

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Chapter 3. Fuel Cells and the Final Frontier

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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...

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Chapter 4. Dawn of the Commercial Fuel Cell

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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...

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Chapter 5. Fueling Hydrogen Futurism

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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...

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Chapter 6. Green Automobile Wars

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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...

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Chapter 7. Electrochemical Millennium

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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,...

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pp. 184-193

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...


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pp. 195-246


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pp. 247-260

About the Author

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pp. 261

E-ISBN-13: 9780813551999

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Studies in Modern Science, Technology, and the Environment