"Fuel cells" in science fiction

You know the trope: your weapon, or spaceship, or whatever needs a dense power source, and the author handwaves something in.

They go by a zillion names. For some reason it seems like “fuel cell” is the most common, even though these power supplies have nothing to do with real fuel cells. Fuel cell, power cell, energy cell, atomic battery, nuclear battery, arc reactor, digital reactor, reactor core, fuel core, etc.–the list is endless.

I’d say they have a few key properties:

  • Very energy/power dense. Often, a cell that can power a starship can be handled by a single human.
  • No fuel required. Cells last for years at a time, and tend to be replaced whole.
  • Removable and modular. A key part of the trope is that you can disable the ship/robot/etc. by just pulling out the cell.

I’m wondering what the history of these devices is. I’m not too familiar with early science fiction; the earliest stuff I remember that fits are the atomic batteries (?) in the Foundation series. It’s been a long time since I read the books but I recall they had some very small and long lasting power supplies. What’s the earliest the trope appeared in recognizable form?

Did the background explanation go through fads? Fission, fusion, antimatter, etc.?

A part of me always wonders–if we really had energy technology that sophisticated, society would undergo a drastic upheaval. It’s ridiculous to say that these things exist, and yet simultaneously have the “dying Earth” trope where people can’t get fresh water or food. If you have that much energy at hand, you can do all the other stuff. Are there any good books or stories that explore what happens when a device like that is invented?

Feel free to add anything else you find interesting on the subject.

Maybe because it sounded more futuristic to say ‘fuel cell’ than ‘gas tank’.

Oh sure, I’m not really complaining about the terminology–it’s all technobabble anyway. But whatever you want to call them, they don’t work anything like gas tanks. As I mentioned, they are sealed units that produce a lot of energy for a long time.

The only real thing that comes close are the reactors on nuclear submarines. They do in fact allow the boats to travel for decades before refueling (which is really more like a total refurbishment). And they are energy-dense. But they aren’t small or modular enough to fit the trope, and I’m fairly certain the trope came before nuclear subs.

Which we generally call a “battery.” I think it’s just a straightforward extrapolation of their storage capacity.

There’s basically two options in common (fictitious) use: the “mega-battery” and the “mini-reactor,” based on whether the story is before or after nuclear power.

In some cases, certainly (as I mentioned above, “atomic battery” is a common label). But I’m not sure how straightforward it is to extrapolate that to something that can power a large craft.

This sounds very reasonable, but is it true? That is, are there no examples of the “mini reactor” style before nuclear power? In some cases, authors might have predicted the use of radiation before nuclear power was really available. I haven’t read it, but I’m aware of the “atomic bombs” in H.G. Wells’ The World Set Free, which didn’t behave anything like real atomic bombs, but were nevertheless weapons of great power. And of course there are other avenues, such as perpetual motion–a motor that runs on its own recycled water would have similar properties.

The Fallout game series setting has tech like this, with cheap, high-power, portable fusion–even “microfusion cells” that serve as ammunition for handheld energy weapons. Long-distance power transmission was apparently a thing of the past–nearly everything ran on internal power. You find bits of tech all over the place that still have power after a couple of centuries of neglect.

In that particular setting, the reason people are scrabbling for food and clean water is that there was a major nuclear exchange. Most of their tech was destroyed and virtually all of their industrial base went with it; at the same time, food and water supplies were badly contaminated. They actually have the power to run a fair amount of stuff, but the remaining equipment to use that power is often dilapidated, and their ability to repair or replace it is limited.

For another “magic battery” example–the Stargate setting has the Zero Point Generators (ZPGs) created by the Ancients. These are modules small enough to be carried by one person, but can power major installations for very long periods of time. The Ancients simply don’t need them anymore, and none of the younger races seem to know how to make them; as a result, they don’t have much effect aside from macguffiny applications.

IIRC, Asimov’s Foundation stories had nuclear power, atomic bombs, and “atom blasters” in the early '40s.

Yeah, the Fallout series is an excellent example of what I’m talking about. If you have effectively infinite energy available, it’s utterly trivial to distill water to be incredibly pure. There’s no reason anyone should drink contaminated water.

They sort of half-addressed this, given that the main plot of Fallout 3 revolves around

activating a machine that will purify the entire Washington Tidal Basin

But why go so far as that? Existing tech would have allowed purifying smaller quantities of water suitable for drinking and farming.

Likewise for farming. They could have set up hydroponics stations with all that energy, but instead everyone eats old-ass, radioactive, canned food.

If you go back to Doc Smith’s Lensman series, it kicked off with the discovery that (relatively) tiny amounts of iron could be used as fuel for extremely powerful reactors. Kind of an early iteration of the idea. His Skylark series used copper in a similar way, IIRC.

Here’s the page on the SF Encyclopedia on fictional power sources. One I noticed they missed was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ rays, used on Barsoom for anti-gravity and propulsion. Technically not a power source, but indistinguishable from one.

You’ve got to keep in mind that nuclear power was postulated before we ever had the math or hard theory for calculating a mass-energy conversion. Radium experiments and the other work with radioactive isotopes, as well as X and Gamma ray work lead to all sorts of fertile speculation in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Prior to Einstein’s famous equation, quite a few people had proposed mass-energy equivalence.

One explicitly nuclear example I recall is from H. Beam Piper’s Federation universe (Little Fuzzy, etc). It’s mentioned as part of the backstory that one of their major industrial revolutions was the development of direct conversion of nuclear to electric energy. Such nuclear power cells are cheap, common and safe enough that they literally have things like nuclear powered electric toothbrushes. They are sealed in a thin layer of impermeable “collapsium”, which apparently totally blocks any radiation.

Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men from 1930 had nuclear power of a sort; it amounted to total conversion however and not fission power. One example would be a handheld device that caused a self-sustaining nuclear reaction at a distance; it was used to blow up an island as a demonstration. It had two triggers; one to turn on the reaction, one to turn it off to keep it from consuming the planet.

“Collapsium” would presumably be neutron star material, or at least white dwarf, the result of the collapse of a star. Never mind the fact that it wouldn’t hold together at sane pressures.

Sounds a lot like the “Shipstones” from Friday.

One of my favorites used a hypergolic mixture of matter and anti-matter – but the two substances were made of the kinds of quarks that aren’t found in nature. So, that way, even if you have an “antimatter fuel spill” you won’t have any explosions as the stuff encounters ordinary everyday stuff. You can move it around in ordinary pipes, without having to use magnetic containment, etc.

Hm, a clever idea, aside from the fact that hyperons (particles made up of the heavier quarks) are unstable on their own, even without contact with the other sort of matter. Do they handwave that away in some way?

Handwaved it, or just ignored it entirely.

As Walt Kelly said, “Every time a man gets a progressive idea, some dang fool law of nature messes it up.”

Robin: Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed.
Batman: Roger. Ready to move out.

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Lithium.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Distilling the water would be easy enough, yes, but while the distilled water would be pure, it wouldn’t necessarily be non-radioactive. There’s not likely to be much tritium in it, but I suppose there could be radioactive oxygen isotopes. The availability of purified water indicates that it’s being processed in some places, though, and I believe the bottled water (which has presumably had at least some of the radioactive particulates filtered/distilled out) is less radioactive than the ground water.

“Effectively unlimited” power doesn’t necessarily mean they have a lot at any one time, either–it may mean they have a source that isn’t going to run out any time soon, but not one that can run energy-intensive equipment. Clearly the Brotherhood and the Enclave have such resources, but they’re not inclined to share.

Again, availability of power and equipment in any given place is an issue. They have no manufacturing capability, so all the machinery they have is the stuff they’ve scavenged that still works; if they don’t happen to have working water pumps, they’re out of luck unless they can adapt something or kludge one together out of scrap. Aside from that, hydroponics involves more than just water and lights–you have to feed the plants a solution of minerals and nutrients, too. They’d need a way to isolate and purify those. Processing the water would still be an issue in a lot of places, too. Odds are that your hydroponic foodstuffs would be cleaner than soil-grown or preserved stuff, but not completely clean.

Given that most people still seem to get by on preserved foods, game, and (to some extent) domesticated meat animals, they probably have more pressing concerns than trying to run a hydroponics operation.

Another interesting micro-reactor variation I just recalled, from a short story in Analog IIRC. It was based on a technology that allowed the creation of a perfect spherical “particle mirror”. If ordinary material was place inside the mirror, the mirror would bounce back the tiny amount of radiation that everything produces; since it couldn’t escape it would bounce back and forth inside the mirror until it struck the material it came from. When it did that it would typically knock a few more particles loose, which would in turn be bounced by the mirror until they were absorbed and knocked loose even more particles - and so on in an expanding cycle, creating a nuclear chain reaction in cheap common elements. It was small and safe enough that they used it in cars.

Dr. Madison Li and her team in Rivet City are doing exactly that. It’s just not something they can apparently do on a really large scale.

No; it’s a super-dense synthetic metal of some kind. Human-made.

Oh, I need to read this! My favorite game ever Deus Ex made numerous references to it, and it’s been on my list.

Neutron reflectors are used in bombs and reactors, so the idea isn’t too far-fetched. You still need fissile material to start with, though. Cute idea, at any rate.

Ah yes, I forgot about that. Still: it’s not like materials are in any short supply. So you wonder why it hasn’t been scaled up, especially as it’s been 200 years since the war.

A great example, but a bit late in the game. Again, I haven’t read it, but from what I understand the shipstones were a storage mechanism. I guess this gets into the distinction TimeWinder was making between batteries and reactors. The battery style must be charged up somewhere, and it isn’t really implied that they burn some fuel over time (even if that fuel would last a long time). So it’s not exactly free energy in that case; it may be that the energy source is not particularly abundant or efficient, even if the storage is.

Nice reference; thanks! This is a particularly interesting one:
In Lord Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) the key to energy-prosperity is vril, a kind of “atmospheric magnetism” administered by a device bearing a suspicious resemblance to a magic wand (a wand waved to considerable effect in The Vril Staff [1891] by XYZ)

An energy wand definitely sounds like a precursor to the energy cell concept. But I wonder if it was a storage device or merely a conduit.