Fueling dreams of grandeur: Fuel cell research and development and the pursuit of the technological panacea, 1940–2005
The record of fuel cell research and development is one of the great enigmas in the history of science and technology. For years, this electrochemical power source, which combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and waste water, excited the imaginations of researchers in many countries. Because fuel cells directly convert chemical into electrical energy, people have long believed them exempt from the so-called Carnot cycle limitation on heat engines, which dictates that such devices must operate at less than 100 per cent efficiency owing to the randomization of energy as heat. Fuel cells have thus struck some scientists and engineers as the "magic bullet" of energy technologies.
This dissertation explores why people have not been able to develop a cheap, durable commercial fuel cell despite more than 50 years of concerted effort since the end of Second World War. I argue this is so mainly because expectations have always been higher than the knowledge base. I investigate fuel cell research and development communities as central nodes of expectation generation. They have functioned as a nexus where the physical realities of fuel cell technology meet external factors, those political, economic and cultural pressures that create a "need" for a "miracle" power source. The unique economic exigencies of these communities have shaped distinct material practices that have done much to inform popular ideas of the capabilities of fuel cell technology.
After the Second World War, the fuel cell was relatively unknown in industrial and governmental science and technology circles. Researchers in most leading industrialized countries, above all the United States, sought to raise the technology's profile through dramatic demonstrations in reductive circumstances, employing notional fuel cells using pure hydrogen and oxygen. Researchers paid less attention to cost and durability, concentrating on increasing power output, a criterion that could be met relatively easily in controlled conditions. While such demonstrations typically led to short-term investments in further research, they also generated expectations for long-lived and affordable fuel cells using hydrocarbons. However, developing commercial fuel cell technology was an expensive and arduous process, one that few sponsors were willing to support for long in the absence of rapid progress. Despite this mixed record, the fuel cell has become a powerful symbol of technological perfection that continues to inspire further research and dreams of energy plenitude.
0585: Science history