Short Circuit

Matt Eisler surveys the forces that have prevented the fuel cell from living up to its technical and economic potential.

By David E. Nye | June 2, 2016

Matt Eisler. Overpotential: Fuel Cells, Futurism, and the Making of a Power Panacea. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012. 274 pp. $49.95.

When politicians discuss energy, they are fond of supporting technological fixes: that is, new machines or processes that promise to reduce shortages and lower prices in the near future. When governments and corporations believe that such a marvel is imminent, they can be convinced to pump in considerable sums for R&D because they expect a rapid return on their investment. The various fixes have ranged from atomic reactors, to windmills, to solar panels, to the subject of this book—fuel cells.

What could be more promising than a device that combines oxygen and hydrogen in an electrochemical reaction to produce clean water and electricity? In theory a fuel cell seems the perfect energy source based on chemistry that is comprehensible to any undergraduate. Yet in practice, making a fuel cell that is reliable, durable, safe, and economically competitive has proven an elusive goal despite huge public and corporate investments since World War II. Matt Eisler traces the history of this “power panacea” from its discovery in the mid-19th century to early attempts to develop it, to its military and aerospace applications in the United States, and most centrally to the start-and-stop attempts at commercialization since the 1960s.

At first the fuel cell was a device without a definite purpose. Adage may have it that necessity is the mother of invention, but as Eisler shows in his first chapter, for a century the fuel cell was “a device in search of a role.” For decades engineers, tinkerers, and scientists struggled to overcome the “reverse salients” that blocked successful commercialization. These included lowering the cost of producing, shipping, and storing pure hydrogen as well as more intractable difficulties, such as deterioration of performance, power-to-weight tradeoffs, finding the best catalyst, and improving proton-exchange membranes. Eisler also addresses competing variants of fuel cells developed by different corporations. Notably, in the early 1970s DuPont introduced Nafion, an effective proton-exchange membrane for use with hydrogen.

Brookhaven National Laboratory REV2_for_web_0.jpg

A researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory studying catalysts that might improve fuel-cell performance.

A researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory studying catalysts that might improve fuel-cell performance.

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Eisler’s book is more than a succinct (primarily U.S.-focused) history of the fuel cell itself. Just as important, it traces the history of the often utopian ideas behind this technology. By exploring the gap between the theory and the practice of fuel cells, this book reveals much about how technologies are presented as panaceas and sold through short narratives. Since fuel cells actually work, it always seemed likely that costs could be lowered by scaling up production, and innovators could debug the product to make it durable. Similar anticipations arose with those who championed atomic power, nanotechnologies, and space colonies.

Support from the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency focused on military applications, while NASA wanted fuel cells (produced by General Electric) for use in outer space. In each case performance was more crucial than cost. Some funding decisions made by Congress, such as the Alternative Motor Fuels Act of 1988, were based on the reputation of expert witnesses, some of whom represented automobile companies. In that specific case automotive corporations effectively agreed to research fuel cells and other oil alternatives in exchange for relaxed mileage standards. During the 1990s Ford and General Motors were bullish about fuel cells as the key to making “green cars,” and the Department of Energy invested in fuel cells for transportation. Yet there were practical, engineering difficulties in realizing the imagined “hydrogen economy,” even if activist Jeremy Rifkin, in his 2002 book of that title, made this economy seem imminent.

Efforts to realize the dream of cost-competitive fuel cells have by no means ended, but after reading this account of billions of dollars spent without quite reaching that goal, readers will presumably be more cautious when they detect technological futurism in which innovations are presented as “sure-fire” winners. Even machines that work may not sell: the Edsel car and the AT&T Picture Phone come to mind.

This well-written and carefully researched study comes out of the scholarly tradition of the history of technology. Eisler helps the reader understand why the fuel cell has yet to fulfill its glittering promise. He also shows how such technologies are promoted and imagined as panaceas to political and economic problems in congressional testimony, through public relations and advertising, and in public exhibitions, such as that at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where the technology was billed as a soon-to-come “‘electric plant’ in your basement.”

The projection of a better technological tomorrow has proven erroneous time and again. Overpotential provides a useful review of one technology whose various futures so far have failed to arrive.