best known early fuel cell experiments were performed in 1842 by the British
physicist and lawyer, Sir William R. Grove (1811-1896). By connecting a hydrogen anode
and an oxygen cathode, he produced an electric current with the experimental
set-up shown to the right.
Grove was most probably the one who built the first real fuel cell, but it
was a German scientist, Christian Friedrich Schoenbein (1799-1868), who
first discovered the
fuel cell effect. Already in January 1839, he reported on current caused by
combining hydrogen and oxygen. Grove was at that time also working on the
same phenomenon, and they exchanged ideas and developments over the following years.
While Schoenebein focused more on the fundamental part of the discovery,
Grove was the engineer. The first
fuel cell power generator was presented by Grove in 1844/1845, see the figure
It consisted of 10 cells connected in series and was supplied with hydrogen
from corrosion of zinc in acid. Unfortunately for the early introduction of
fuel cells, the development of the dynamo technology in 1866 by Werner von
Siemens overshadowed the discovery of this promising energy converter.
Ostwald (later a Nobel prize winner) said in 1884: “ The fuel cell is a larger
invention for the civilisation than the steam machine and will soon place the
Siemens generator in the museum.” In 1905 he and Nernst presented a
general theory of fuel cells.
Due to easily accessible and large amounts of oil and the invention of the
combustion engine (Carl Friedrich Benz and Gottlieb Daimler), fuel cells
were forgotten until the middle of the 20th century. In the US Apollo space programme, fuel cells exhibited their first renaissance in the
1960’s. On the
21st August 1965, the Gemini 5 was the first space shuttle using a
polymer membrane fuel cell to replace the battery. Due
to better performance, alkaline fuel cells were used in the Apollo missions and
supplied the electric power when the USA landed
on the moon in 1969.
NASA Space Shuttle.
AFC for the Apollo
first oil crisis in 1973 led to the second renaissance, where especially the interest for large
power plants based on high-temperature fuel cells increased. Professor Karl Kordesch
at the University of Graz, Austria, was one of
the early fuel cell pioneers. He and his co-workers developed an alkaline fuel cell motorbike and a car
in the 1970`s. The focus on environmental pollution over the last two
to three decades has forced world society to search for cleaner energy
thus fuel cells have experienced an exponential increase in attention.
Fuel cell development has
been slowed down by a fear of hydrogen as a fuel. It is commonly believed
that hydrogen is an extremely explosive and dangerous gas. Most of this
belief was founded in 1937, when the hydrogen-filled zeppelin “Hindenburg”
caught fire and crashed in Lakehurst, USA. 35 of the 97 passengers died in
what was commonly thought to be a hydrogen explosion. The real reason for the fire
was the explosive paint mixture, a combination of aluminium, iron and
oxygen. Most of the people died from jumping out of the zeppelin and not
the flames. Unlike most other compounds, hydrogen is lighter than air, so it disperses quickly to a non-explosive mixture when a leak occurs.
Hydrogen is non-toxic and less flammable than gasoline.
The focus on environmental
and pollution problems over the last decades
has made the world search for cleaner energy technology. Together with
other renewable sources like photovoltaic, hydro electric and wind power, fuel cells have
experienced increasing interest from governments and industry. Concerns
about CO2 emissions and their influence on global warming have especially forced the automotive industry to look for alternatives to
replace the internal combustion engine. Several billion dollars is being
spent on research and development each year. Prototypes for all kinds of
applications have been presented to show the technological and economical
feasibility. However, there is still a way to travel before a widespread
market introduction of fuel cells is possible.
society" vision from Statoil, Norway.
Source for the discovery of
"The Birth of the Fuel
Cell 1835-1845", Ulf Bossel, The European Fuel Cell Forum,