History of Fuel Cells

The history of the fuel cell dates back to the late nineteenth century when two scientists began working on the principle that underlies the generation of electricity from chemical reactions. The first of these scientists was the German-Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schonbein who, in 1838, discovered the principle that underlies fuel cells. That same year, Schonbein published his discovery in “Philosophical Magazine.”

In 1839, using the earlier work of Schonbein, the Welsh scientist Sir William Robert Grove built the first fuel cell. It was similar in construction and material to a phosphoric acid fuel cell, having zinc and platinum electrodes separated by a porous ceramic pot. He presented this fuel cell to the Academie des Sciences in Paris in 1839 and later that year to the British Association for the Advancement of Science where Michael Faraday took a keen interest.

Grove was inducted into the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1841 and made some early headway into the conservation of energy which he called “correlation of physical forces.” A year later, in 1842, Grove developed the first fuel cell to run on hydrogen and oxygen based on his “correlation of physical forces” theory. This is the reason that fuel cells were often called “Grove cells” during their very early development, though Grove himself referred to them as “gas voltaic batteries.”

The term “fuel cell” actually wasn’t used until 1889 when two chemists, Charles Langer and Ludwig Mond, were attempting in create a practical fuel cell that ran on air and coal gas. They made a number of changes to the Grove cell, including the use of a porous, non-conducting diaphragm later to be used in proton exchange membrane fuel cells. They never achieved long term success with their fuel cell, at least partly due to the problem of catalyst poisoning. The Langer-Mond fuel cell lost traction in the early 1900s due to the rise of the cheaper, simpler internal combustion engine.

In 1932, engineer Francis Thomas Bacon developed the first successful fuel cell device using alkaline electrolyte and nickel electrodes. However, technical complications continued to plague the fuel cell until 1955 when W. Thomas Grub made several modifications of the original design. His largest contribution was a polymer ion-exchange membrane to replace the alkaline electrolyte of previous fuel cells. This advancement was later embellished by Leonard Niedrach who devised a way to coat the membrane with platinum to create a highly efficient reaction. This technology was directly used in Project Gemini, the second human spaceflight program of NASA. The interest by NASA gave fuel cell technology a much needed boost, bringing it back from the brink of irrelevance. After the use of fuel cells in the Gemini project, NASA went on to fund over 200 fuel cell research contracts.

In 1959, using some of the advancements made by Grub and Niedrach, Francis Thomas Bacon developed a 5 kW stationary fuel cell, followed shortly thereafter by a 15 kW stationary fuel cell. Pratt and Whitney licensed Bacon’s patents in order to use his modified alkaline fuel cell in the U.S. Space program to provide both electricity and potable water to the Space Shuttle. Pratt and Whitney eventually went on to create UTC Power, which supplied fuel cells to NASA initially, but branched out in the 1990s to industrial and commercial applications.

Fuel cell development continued through the 1970s and 1980s, with most of the focus on alkaline fuel cells. In 1991, however, Roger Billings produced the first vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel. This came on the heels of a long career invested in hydrogen and the conversion of internal combustion engines to run on hydrogen. While working for Ford Motor Company, Billings did a great deal of work on hydrogen and fuel cells, finding that fuel cells were far more efficient and made far better use of the lower energy density of hydrogen than did internal combustion. This implementation of hydrogen fuel cells brought the idea of the “hydrogen economy” closer to reality than it had previously been.

In the 1990’s, UTC Power was established as a subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation and began to produce a 200 kW stationary fuel cell called the PureCell 200. This fuel cell is a phosphoric acid fuel cell capable of running on hydrocarbon fuel such as natural gas. The company announced in 2009 that the PureCell 200 would be replaced by the PureCell Model 400, a 400 kW stationary fuel cell. The Model 400 produces both electricity and heat, making it highly efficient for use in supermarkets, hospitals, hotels, and educational institutions. UTC also produces a polymer exchange membrane fuel cell that runs entirely on hydrogen for use in mobile applications.