History of fuel cells
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History of Fuel cells William Robert Grove William Robert Grove (1811 -1896), a Welsh lawyer turned scientist, won renown for his development of an improved wet-cell battery in 1838

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William Robert Grove

William Robert Grove (1811 -1896), a Welsh lawyer turned scientist, won renown for his development of an improved wet-cell battery in 1838

In 1800, British scientists William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle had described the process of using electricity to decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen. But combining the gases to produce electricity and water was, according to Grove


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Christian Schönbein

Johann Poggendorff

Christian Schönbein (1799 -1868) and Johann Poggendorff (1796 -1877) were among a number of scientists who debated the question of exactly how Grove's gas battery worked


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Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald

Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald (1853 -1932), a founder of the field of physical chemistry, provided much of the theoretical understanding of how fuel cells operate. In 1893, he experimentally determined the interconnected roles of the various components of the fuel cell: electrodes, electrolyte, oxidizing and reducing agents, anions, and cations


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Ludwig Mond

Chemist Ludwig Mond (1839 -1909) and assistant Carl Langer (d. 1935) described their experiments with a fuel cell using coal-derived "Mond-gas." They attained 6 amps per square foot (measuring the surface area of the electrode) at .73 volts. Mond and Langer's cell used electrodes of thin, perforated platinum

At the same time, Charles R. Alder Wright (1844–1894) and C. Thompson developed a similar fuel cell. Their report on the experiments give an idea of the limitations of the time


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William Jacques' carbon battery apparatus, 1896

William W. Jacques (1855 -1932), an electrical engineer and chemist, was undeterred by such figures however. In 1896, he "startled the scientific world and general public," according to one scientist of the day, "by his broad assertion that he had invented a process of making electricity directly from coal." Jacques constructed a "carbon battery" in which air was injected into an alkali electrolyte to react with a carbon electrode


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Emil Baur

Emil Baur (1873 -1944) of Switzerland (along with several students at Braunschweig and Zurich) conducted wide-ranging research into different types of fuel cells during the first half of the twentieth century. Baur's work included high temperature devices (using molten silver as an electrolyte) and a unit that used a solid electrolyte of clay and metal oxides

In the 1940s, O. K. Davtyan of the Soviet Union added monazite sand to a mix of sodium carbonate, tungsten trioxide, and soda glass "in order to increase the conductivity and mechanical strength" of his electrolyte. Many of the designs during this period experienced unwanted chemical reactions, short life ratings, and disappointing power output. However, the work of Baur, Davtyan and others on high-temperature devices paved the way for both the molten carbonate and solid oxide fuel cell devices of today


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Francis Thomas Bacon

Francis Thomas Bacon (1904 -1992) began researching alkali electrolyte fuel cells in the late 1930s. In 1939, he built a cell that used nickel gauze electrodes and operated under pressure as high as 3000 psi

In 1958 he demonstrated an alkali cell using a stack of 10-inch diameter electrodes for Britain's National Research Development Corporation


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Comprehensive History

  • The principle of the fuel cell was discovered by German scientist Christian Friedrich Schönbein in 1838 and published in the January 1839 edition of the "Philosophical Magazine". Based on this work, the first fuel cell was developed by Welsh scientist Sir William Robert Grove in 1843. The fuel cell he made used similar materials to today's Phosphoric-acid fuel cell. It wasn't until 1959 that British engineer Francis Thomas Bacon successfully developed a 5kW stationary fuel cell. In 1959, a team led by Harry Ihrig built a 15kW fuel cell tractor for Allis-Chalmers which was demonstrated across the US at state fairs. This system used potassium hydroxide as the electrolyte and compressed hydrogen and oxygen as the reactants. Later, in 1959, Bacon and his colleagues demonstrated a practical five-kilowatt unit capable of powering a welding machine, which led, in the 1960s to Bacon's patents being licensed by Pratt and Whitney from the U.S. where the concepts were used in the U.S. space program to supply electricity and drinking water (hydrogen and oxygen being readily available from the spacecraft tanks).


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  • UTX's UTC Power subsidiary was the first company to manufacture and commercialize a large, stationary fuel cell system for use as a co-generation power plant in hospitals, universities and large office buildings. UTC Power continues to market this fuel cell as the PureCell 200, a 200kW system. UTC Power continues to be the sole supplier of fuel cells to NASA for use in space vehicles, having supplied the Apollo missions and currently the Space Shuttle program, and is developing fuel cells for automobiles, buses, and cell phone towers; the company has demonstrated the first fuel cell capable of starting under freezing conditions with its proton exchange membrane automotive fuel cell.

  • A so-called water fuel cell (1989) is an unrelated claim of a perpetual motion device, which in fact was not claimed to function the way a fuel cell does.

  • In 2006 Staxon introduced an inexpensive OEM fuel cell module for system integration. In 2006 Angstrom Power, a British Columbia based company, began commercial sales of portable devices using proprietary hydrogen fuel cell technology, trademarked as "micro hydrogen."