Wednesday’s Book Review: “Overpotential”

OverpotentialOverpotential: Fuel Cells, Futurism, and the Making of a Power Panacea. By Matthew N. Eisler. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012. Acknowledgments, notes, index. Pp. ix – 260. ISBN: 978-0-8135-5177-7. Hardcover with dustjacket. $49.95 USD.

I have been interested in fuel cells since NASA began using them for electrical power in the Gemini program of the 1960s. They seemed so simple, yet so elegant, as a solution to generating electricity to power spacecraft. Using oxygen and hydrogen, combined with an electrochemical reaction, and the result is electricity with water as a byproduct. It’s clean, efficient, and long-lasting. Perfect for spaceflight; only it’s not and historian Matthew N. Eisler makes clear why.

There are arguably only four methods of providing the electrical power needed for a spacecraft, all of them with positives and negatives. The first method, and the one used on the first spacecraft launched into orbit, was batteries. Their wattage was limited, but even more limited was their longevity. Within a few days they always ran down and the spacecraft’s systems no longer operated. Photovoltaic solar cells emerged in the 1960s as a useful alternative to batteries; they have a long life measured in years rather than weeks, and with additional refinement they have become the critical power generation technology for most spacecraft. Solar power has one important drawback; it requires the Sun’s powerful light source to be effective. For spacecraft traveling into deep space beyond Mars, where the Sun becomes much less intense, NASA has developed to a high art the use of radioisotope power systems which have enabled deep space missions but are controversial because of the dangers of nuclear power.

The subject of this book, fuel cells, has helped to resolve power system problem for NASA. They have been used on all human spacecraft built by the United States since the space race of 50 years ago. Matthew N. Eisler tells the story of NASA’s role in developing this technology in this very fine book, but that is not his primary purpose. Instead he seeks to unpack in Overpotential: Fuel Cells, Futurism, and the Making of a Power Panacea the more complex, and infinitely more interesting, story of the intertwining of technological developments concerning electrical power and the search for new sources of cheap, safe, efficient electricity.

Eisler’s study begins in the 1940s when scientific investigation found that an electrochemical process could create power. The Bacon fuel cell set the standard, and its evolution led to the systems that flew on the Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle vehicles. At some level, however, the fuel cell as always was a technology in search of a mission. It has always seemed so inviting and so simple as well as so cost effective and so nonpolluting. But the costs never came down, the power was never as quite as great as promised, and success in its use has always seemed just beyond our grasp.

The author points to two great periods in which public enthusiasm outstripped any deficiencies in the technology’s capabilities. The first was during the 1960s when NASA adopted fuel cells to power human spacecraft and used its considerable resources and cache to emphasize its positives. The second period was in the latter 1990s and the early part of the 2000s when analysis and championing of the hydrogen economy emerged to press use of the technology. Advocates argued that hydrogen fuel cells could provide a substitute for greenhouse gas-producing fuels.  They asserted that the next one hundred years may become the hydrogen century.  Since hydrogen is abundant on Earth, being one of the principal elements in water, it could be used to power fuel cells. Fuel cells and hydrogen/oxygen engines, envisioned as logical spin-offs from the space program, could rapidly become cost-competitive with fossil fuels. In the same way that carbon fuels fired the industrial engines of the twentieth century, hydrogen would power the twenty-first century.

Despite this enthusiasm for fuel cells as THE next power source useful for humanity, one that was viewed as both abundant and inexpensive, it has failed to catch on. That is because, as Eisler makes clear, creating an affordable, efficient, and powerful electrical source has proven an extraordinarily difficult task. Production of electricity was not the principal problem, it was storage and distribution. There are those who still believe that this will change in the future and fuel cells will become the method of choice for powering electrical automobiles, providing electricity in homes, and offering a range of options for powering other items.

The military may be the organization that will yet make fuel cells a useful technology. The desire to reduce the logistics pipeline is a very real driver for research, and anything that can be done to make the supply chain less vulnerable deserves exploration. Without truckloads of diesel traveling through areas where they might be attacked the situation will be improved. Investment to make fuel cell technology is appropriate in such settings. If proven out, fuel cells might their way as spin-offs into commercial settings.

Matthew Eisler’s study is fundamentally one about why some technologies work out and others do not. It traces fuel cells and their ups and downs over more than 75 years of research, development, and modestly successful applications. The book is very strong on the story of NASA’s efforts to apply fuel cells to spacecraft. This is a story well worth telling and Overpotential is a strong explanation of this important theme.

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One Response to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Overpotential”

  1. Joe Wooten says:

    The main drawback to fuel cells is the cost of making hydrogen. The chemical bonds of hydrogen to oxygen (water) and Carbon(natural gas) are so strong that a lot of energy is needed to break them. It takes more energy to create the hydrogen than you get out of it running it through a fuel cell. Until a method of making hydrogen using less energy than it puts out is developed, fuel cells will just be a niche generator.


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