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History of Fuel Cells

Individual Fuel Cell

History of Fuel Cells

As early as 1839, Sir William Grove (often referred to as the "Father of the Fuel Cell") discovered that it may be possible to generate electricity by reversing the electrolysis of water. It was not until 1889 that two researchers, Charles Langer and Ludwig Mond, coined the term "fuel cell" as they were trying to engineer the first practical fuel cell using air and coal gas. While further attempts were made in the early 1900s to develop fuel cells that could convert coal or carbon into electricity, the advent of the internal combustion engine temporarily quashed any hopes of further development of the fledgling technology.

Francis Bacon developed what was perhaps the first successful fuel cell device in 1932, with a hydrogen-oxygen cell using alkaline electrolytes and nickel electrodes - inexpensive alternatives to the catalysts used by Mond and Langer. Due to a substantial number of technical hurdles, it was not until 1959 that Bacon and company first demonstrated a practical five-kilowatt fuel cell system. Harry Karl Ihrig presented his now-famous 20-horsepower fuel cell-powered tractor that same year.

Also in the late 1950s, NASA began to build a compact electricity generator for use on space missions. NASA soon came to fund hundreds of research contracts involving fuel cell technology. Fuel cells now have a proven role in the space program, after supplying electricity to several space missions.

In more recent decades, a number of manufacturers - including major auto makers - and various federal agencies have supported ongoing research into the development of fuel cell technology for use in fuel cell vehicles (FCV) and other applications. Fuel cell energy is now expected to replace traditional power sources in coming years - from micro fuel cells to be used in cell phones to high-powered fuel cells for stock car racing.

What is a fuel cell?

A fuel cell (see schematic above) converts the chemical energy of hydrogen and oxygen directly to produce electricity and its byproducts water and heat. They are inherently clean and efficient and are uniquely able to address the issues of environmental and energy security. They are also safe, quiet and reliable.

Fuelled with pure hydrogen, fuel cells produce zero emissions of carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen or any other pollutants. Even if fuelled with fossil fuels as a source of hydrogen, noxious emissions are orders of magnitude below conventional combustion engines.

They offer significant improvements in energy efficiency as they remove the intermediate step of combustion and mechanical devices such as turbines and pistons, thereby making fuel cells not limited by the Carnot efficiency. Unlike conventional systems, they operate at high efficiency at part load and their high efficiency is not compromised by small sizes. High efficiency saves fuel and reduces CO2 emissions.

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