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Fuel Cell Origins

Grove's drawing of a gas battery apparatus, 1843.

William Grove's drawing of an experimental
"gas battery" from an 1843 letter

Image from Proceedings of the Royal Society

The two figures above appear on page 272 of the Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 1843, with William Grove's letter "On the Gas Voltaic Battery." Grove undertook the series of thirty experiments described in this letter when, "after my original publication I received a letter from Dr. Schoenbein [Christian F. Schönbein (1799-1868)] ... [who] there expresses an opinion, that in the gas battery oxygen does not immediately contribute to the production of current, but that it is produced by the combination of hydrogen with water."

One of the gas battery configurations used in Grove's experiments is seen here. "In figure 6, a battery of five cells ... is represented as when charged [filled] with oxygen and hydrogen, and having been for some time connected with the voltmeter (figure 7), the tubes of which are of the same size as those of the battery." These are labeled "o" and "h" in the drawing.

Grove wrote, "ten cells charged to a given mark on the tube with dilute sulphuric acid ... oxygen and hydrogen, were arranged in circuit with an interposed voltameter ... and allowed to remain so for thirty-six hours. At the end of that time 2.1 cubic inches of mixed gas were evolved in the voltameter; the liquid had risen in each of the hydrogen tubes of the battery to the extent of 1.5 cubic inch, and in the oxygen tubes 0.7 cubic inch, equalling [sic] altogether 2.2 cubic inches; there was therefore 0.1 cubic inch more of hydrogen absorbed in the battery tubes than was evolved in the voltameter. This experiment was repeated several times with the same general result."

In the course of these experiments, Grove provided strong evidence that producing current required both hydrogen and oxygen. However, he also raised questions about the production of heat and "novel gaseous and liquid products"–questions that he could not answer with the equipment and theory available to him. These questions became puzzles for later researchers to solve.

Portrait of William Robert Grove
William Robert Grove

Image from Scientific Identity: Portraits from the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology

If you have information about Grove or other nineteenth-century fuel cell researchers, please fill out the Collecting History questionnaire accessible through the link at the top of the previous page.

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