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Fuel Cell Origins

Jacques' carbon battery apparatus, 1896.

William Jacques' carbon battery apparatus, 1896

As an inventor of electrical devices, William W. Jacques showed versatility. He developed several useful telephone components as an engineer with American Bell, and in October 1887 he and partner Lowell Briggs contracted to Thomas Edison the rights to manufacture and market "talking dolls" they had invented that used Edison phonographs.

By 1896, Jacques had turned to the problem of making a source of electric power that was more efficient than existing steam engines. He developed an electrochemical generator that he hoped would convert coal directly into electricity. The apparatus (above) consisted of 100 cells arranged in series and placed on top of a furnace that kept the electrolyte temperature between 400-500 degrees C. The output was measured as 16 amps at 90 volts.

Initially, Jacques claimed an 82 percent efficiency for his carbon battery, but critics soon pointed out that he had failed to account for the heat energy used in the furnace and the energy used to drive an air pump. The result was an efficiency of only 8 percent. Further research demonstrated that the current generated by his apparatus was not obtained through electrochemical action, but rather through thermoelectric action. Several subsequent researchers have stated that Jacques's was the last notable attempt to derive electricity directly from coal.

Jacques' gas battery apparatus, 1896.

William Jacques' carbon cell, 1896 (digitally enhanced)

Images from The Electrical Review
38, no. 970, p.826, 26 June 1896

Details of Jacques's cell are seen in the image above. "A carbon, C, is plunged into a solution of caustic soda, E. A pump, A, forces air into a perforated nozzle, R, which distributes the air uniformly in the electrolyte. The positive pole is fixed upon the iron receiver, I, containing the solution, and the negative pole [B] upon the carbon which is supported and insulated from the receiver by a collar, S. Two tubes, o and i, serve for the admission and discharge of the [electrolyte] solution."

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