Fuel Cell Origins
Fuel cell design by Ludwig Mond and
Carl Langer, 1889
from a pastel by Anton Klamroth, Leipzig,
from Transactions of the American Electrochemical Society,
History and Theory, published in 1896, Wilhelm Ostwald
described Grove's gas battery as "of no practical importance
but quite significant for its theoretical interest." At
the time, Ostwald and his students were deeply involved
in debates with other researchers. The laws of thermodynamics
were still being refined, the electron was yet to be discovered,
and theories to explain the nature of matter and energy
abounded. In this scientific climate, the gas battery was
both an enigma and a source of passionate arguments. "It
was a puzzle," Ostwald wrote, "how gases separated by a
thick layer of liquid were able to combine with the help
of the catalytic power of platinum."
related several competing theories and detailed Grove's
successful experiments of electrolyzing water with a gas
battery. He then wrote, "[Grove's] ideas sounded very
strange in those days. Grove apologizes for the expressions
he used. These ideas are quite familiar to us now as a
direct consequence of the law of the conservation of energy....
process of representing natural phenomena as mechanical
ones had been completely mastered by the science of that
time. Even today it is generally valid as an undoubted
postulate. But we are now finding that one cannot achieve
a proper representation of reality in this way. This is
a point where science begins to follow another path. This
is the formation of appropriate new concepts and the corresponding
training in the capacity to conceive a correlation between
phenomena that would not have been possible on the mechanical
model.... The mechanical view of reality is being replaced
in our time by concepts of energy."
the end of his book, Ostwald solved "the puzzle of Grove's
gas battery." He wrote, "The answer is contained in the
fact that oxidizing agents are always substances that
form negative ions or make positive ions disappear; the
reverse is true of reducing agents.... Oxygen and hydrogen
are nothing more than oxidizing and reducing agents."
Wilhelm, Electrochemistry: History and Theory,
trans. N. P. Date, (New Delhi: Amerind for the Smithsonian
Institution and the National Science Foundation, 1980),
pp. 668-79, 1119.
you have information about Ostwald or other early fuel
cell researchers, please fill out the Collecting History
questionnaire accessible through the link at the top of
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