History of Fuel Cells

Fuel cells have been known in the scientific community for about 150 years. They began to be explored in the 1800s, and have been extensively researched during the second half of the twentieth and early twenty-first century.  A summary of fuel cell history is shown in Figure 1. 

Figure 1: The history of fuel cells

In 1800, William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle described the process of using electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen. William Grove is credited with the first known demonstration of the fuel cell in 1839. Grove saw notes from Nicholson and Carlisle and thought he might “recompose water” by combining electrodes in a series circuit, and soon accomplished this with a device called a “gas battery.” It operated with separate platinum electrodes in oxygen and hydrogen submerged in a dilute sulfuric acid electrolyte solution. The sealed containers contained water and gasses, and it he observed that the water level rose in both tubes as the current flowed. The device was nicknamed the “Grove cell,” and it consisted of a platinum electrode immersed in nitric acid, and a zinc electrode immersed in zinc sulfate. It generated about 12 amps of current at approximately 1.8 volts.
Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald (1853–1932), one of the founders of physical chemistry, provided a significant portion of the theoretical understanding of fuel cells. In 1893, Ostwald experimentally determined the roles of many fuel cell components.
Ludwig Mond (1839–1909) was a chemist that spent most of his career developing soda manufacturing and nickel refining. In 1889, Mond and his assistant Carl Langer performed numerous experiments using a coal-derived gas. They used electrodes made of thin, perforated platinum, and had many difficulties with liquid electrolytes. They achieved six amps per square foot (the area of the electrode) at 0.73 volts.
Charles R. Alder Wright (1844–1894) and C. Thompson developed a similar fuel cell around the same time. They had difficulties in preventing gasses from leaking from one chamber to another. The leaking and a few other design flaws prevented the battery from reaching voltages as high as 1 volt. Wright and Thompson felt that if they had more funding, they could create a more robust cell that would provide adequate electricity for many applications.
The French team of Louis Paul Cailleteton (1832–1913) and Louis Joseph Colardeau came to a similar conclusion, but thought the fuel cell electrochemical process was not practical due to needing “precious metals.” Also, many papers published during that period said that coal was extremely inexpensive so that a new system with a higher efficiency would not decrease the prices of electricity drastically.
William W. Jacques (1855–1932), an electrical engineer and chemist, did not pay attention to these critiques and startled the scientific world by constructing a “carbon battery” in 1896. Air was injected into an alkali electrolyte to react with a carbon electrode. He thought he was achieving an efficiency of 82 percent but obtained only an 8-percent efficiency.
Emil Baur (1873–1944) of Switzerland and several of his students conducted many experiments on different types of fuel cells during the early 1900s. He worked on high-temperature devices, and a unit that used a solid electrolyte of clay and metal oxides.
O. K. Davtyan of the Soviet Union did many experiments to increase the conductivity and mechanical strength of the electrolyte in the 1940s. Many of the designs did not yield his desired results, but Davtyan’s and Baur’s work contributed to the necessary preliminary research for today’s current Molten Carbonate Fuel Cell (MCFC) and Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) devices.
Dr. Colleen Spiegel Posted by Dr. Colleen Spiegel

Dr. Colleen Spiegel has sixteen years of experience in engineering, scientific, and research work for many companies as a consultant, employee, and independent business owner. She owned Clean Fuel Cell Energy, LLC, which was a profitable renewable energy business that served scientists, engineers, and professors world-wide. She is the author of ‘Designing and Building Fuel Cells’ (McGraw-Hill, 2007) and ‘PEM Fuel Cell Modeling and Simulation Using MATLAB’ (Elsevier Science, 2008).

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