Fuel Cell Print E-mail
Monday, 24 January 2005

Did you think fuel cells were a quite recent invention?

If so, read on and you’ll discover that they pre date the internal combustion engine by many years!

The first practical use of a fuel cell may well have been to power a boat!

Way back in 1838, a Swiss professor called Christian Friedrich Schoenbein experimented using a U shaped tube, containing two platinum electrodes. He discovered that the passage of an electric current caused hydrogen and oxygen bubbles to appear and, when the current was cut, an electric current flowed in the opposite sense.

Schoenbein's description of the fuel cell effect first appeared in the English language in the January 1839 edition of “The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine” and was read by Sir William Robert Grove, a Welsh born, London barrister who specialised in patent law and had a great interest in what was then called natural science.

Grove and Schoenbein began corresponding and, in 1842, Grove developed a practical fuel cell power source, which he called a “gas battery”. (above) Grove’s device consisted of platinum strips in a sulphuric acid electrolyte. Ironically, Grove noted at the time that ‘if the method can be developed commercially, hydrogen could replace coal and wood as the major energy source. ’

Problems of consistency in results ensured that there was no serious attempt to commercially exploit the device. However, Grove did look for potential commercial uses and might even have used one in a boat, for we know that - prior to inventing his gas battery - he and a friend had fitted a conventional battery, invented by Grove, in a boat that was able to carry a considerable weight at about 3 miles an hour. Although we don’t know whether he later tried the fuel cell in the boat, it does appear to be the first record of a battery powered electric boat.

Later fuel cells were constructed by William White Jaques and by Ludwig Mond & Carl Langer; all of them have been credited with coining the expression “fuel cell”.

In 1932, Francis T Bacon began research into fuels cells, with a view to eliminating the need for expensive platinum electrodes and suceeded in producing a cell which used an alkaline electrolyte and nickel electrodes. 


The famous Bacon Cell, developing 5 kVa, appeared in 1959 and, in that same year, Allis-Chalmers fitted a normal D-12 tractor with 112 batteries containing 1008 fuel cells, to produce a 60 V current. This powered a 20 hp electric motor and speed was varied by engaging many, or fewer, cells.

After tests, Allis-Chalmers  pronounced satisfaction with the effiency and lack of pollution, yet only one fuel cell tractor was built.

Bacon’s vision had been to see the fuel cell adopted for use in everyday transport, but it didn’t happen in his lifetime. Pratt and Whitney took out a licence on his patents and used the concept in a far more exotic mode of transport; to provide electrical power for the Apollo moon shot.

Today, the fuel cell is close to becoming part of our everyday lives and the names of Grove and Schoenbein will be as well known to future generations as Otto and Diesel are to us. Already those obscure men are receiving recognition.

A fuel cell conference, held every second year in the UK, has been named after Grove. In Switzerland,during the annual European Fuel Cell Forum, a Schoenbein Medal of Honour is awarded for outstanding contributions to fuel cell technology. In Germany, a museum to the life and works of Schoenbein has been installed in Metzingen, where he was born. It isn’t very far from Stuttgart, where Daimler-Chrysler is working hard at developing fuel cell engines, as successors to those internal combustion engines invented by Otto and Diesel.

Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
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