Getting power to the people: technological dramaturgy and the quest for the electrochemical engine

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Despite over 50 years of concerted effort by government and industry since the end of the Second World War, expectations for a cheap, durable commercial fuel cell have been repeatedly dashed. I argue this is so mainly because researchers have historically conceived the fuel cell as a universal chemical energy converter, a kind of super battery that combined the best aspects of battery and heat engine. Dramatic demonstrations of notional and prototype hydrogen fuel cells in controlled conditions attracted short-term investments in further research and inspired hopes that long-lived and affordable commercial fuel cells using hydrocarbons could be developed. However, building such an electrochemical engine proved a complex and costly process, one that few sponsors were willing to support for long in the absence of rapid progress. I explore these dynamics in a comparative study of the fuel cell programs of General Electric and Ballard Power Systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)49-68
Number of pages20
JournalHistory and Technology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 25 Feb 2009


  • battery electric vehicle
  • fuel cell
  • proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell
  • zero emission vehicle

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