Hydrogen Fuel Cells Innovation for the 21st Century

Hydrogen fuel cell

In 1839, the first fuel cell was conceived by Sir William Robert Grove, a Welsh judge, inventor, and physicist. He mixed hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of an electrolyte and produced electricity and water. The invention, which later became known as a fuel cell, didn't produce enough electricity to be useful.

Early Stages of the Fuel Cell 

In 1889, the term “fuel cell” was first coined by Ludwig Mond and Charles Langer, who attempted to build a working fuel cell using air and industrial coal gas. Another source states that it was William White Jaques who first coined the term "fuel cell." Jaques was also the first researcher to use phosphoric acid in the electrolyte bath.

In the 1920s, fuel cell research in Germany paved the way for the development of the carbonate cycle and solid oxide fuel cells of today.

In 1932, engineer Francis T Bacon began his vital research into fuels cells. Early cell designers used porous platinum electrodes and sulfuric acid as the electrolyte bath. Using platinum was expensive and using sulfuric acid was corrosive. Bacon improved on the expensive platinum catalysts with a hydrogen and oxygen cell using a less corrosive alkaline electrolyte and inexpensive nickel electrodes.

It took Bacon until 1959 to perfect his design when he demonstrated a five-kilowatt fuel cell that could power a welding machine. Francis T. Bacon, a direct descendant of the other well known Francis Bacon, named his famous fuel cell design the "Bacon Cell."

Fuel Cells in Vehicles

In October of 1959, Harry Karl Ihrig, an engineer for the Allis - Chalmers Manufacturing Company, demonstrated a 20-horsepower tractor that was the first vehicle ever powered by a fuel cell.

During the early 1960s, General Electric produced the fuel-cell-based electrical power system for NASA's Gemini and Apollo space capsules. General Electric used the principles found in the "Bacon Cell" as the basis of its design. Today, the Space Shuttle's electricity is provided by fuel cells, and the same fuel cells provide drinking water for the crew.

NASA decided that using nuclear reactors was too high a risk, and using batteries or solar power was too bulky to use in space vehicles. NASA has funded more than 200 research contracts exploring fuel-cell technology, bringing the technology to a level now viable for the private sector.

The first bus powered by a fuel cell was completed in 1993, and several fuel-cell cars are now being built in Europe and in the United States. Daimler-Benz and Toyota launched prototype fuel-cell powered cars in 1997.

Fuel Cells the Superior Energy Source

Maybe the answer to "What's so great about fuel cells?" should be the question "What's so great about pollution, changing the climate or running out of oil, natural gas, and coal?" As we head into the next millennium, it is time to put renewable energy and planet-friendly technology at the top of our priorities.

Fuel cells have been around for over 150 years and offer a source of energy that is inexhaustible, environmentally safe and always available. So why aren't they being used everywhere already? Until recently, it has been because of the cost. The cells were too expensive to make. That has now changed.

In the United States, several pieces of legislation have promoted the current explosion in hydrogen fuel cell development: namely, the congressional Hydrogen Future Act of 1996 and several state laws promoting zero emission levels for cars. Worldwide, different types of fuel cells have been developed with extensive public funding. The United States alone has sunk more than one billion dollars into fuel-cell research in the last thirty years.

In 1998, Iceland announced plans to create a hydrogen economy in cooperation with German carmaker Daimler-Benz and Canadian fuel cell developer Ballard Power Systems. The 10-year plan would convert all transportation vehicles, including Iceland's fishing fleet, over to fuel-cell-powered vehicles. In March 1999, Iceland, Shell Oil, Daimler Chrysler, and Norsk Hydroformed a company to further develop Iceland's hydrogen economy.

In February 1999, Europe's first public commercial hydrogen fuel station for cars and trucks opened for business in Hamburg, Germany. In April 1999, Daimler Chrysler unveiled the liquid hydrogen vehicle NECAR 4. With a top speed of 90 mph and a 280-mile tank capacity, the car wowed the press. The company plans to have fuel-cell vehicles in limited production by the year 2004. By that time, Daimler Chrysler will have spent $1.4 billion more on fuel-cell technology development.

In August 1999, Singapore physicists announced a new hydrogen storage method of alkali doped carbon nanotubes that would increase hydrogen storage and safety. A Taiwanese company, San Yang, is developing the first fuel cell powered motorcycle.

Where Do We Go From Here?

There are still issues with hydrogen-fueled engines and power plants. Transport, storage and safety problems need to be addressed. Greenpeace has promoted the development of a fuel cell operated with regeneratively produced hydrogen. European car makers have so far ignored a Greenpeace project for a super-efficient car consuming only 3 liters of gasoline per 100 km.

Special Thanks goes to H-Power, The Hydrogen Fuel Cell Letter, and Fuel Cell 2000

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Bellis, Mary. "Hydrogen Fuel Cells Innovation for the 21st Century." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/hydrogen-fuel-cells-1991799. Bellis, Mary. (2021, September 1). Hydrogen Fuel Cells Innovation for the 21st Century. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/hydrogen-fuel-cells-1991799 Bellis, Mary. "Hydrogen Fuel Cells Innovation for the 21st Century." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/hydrogen-fuel-cells-1991799 (accessed March 30, 2023).