Navigation Bar link to Fuel Cell site hompage link to Project Overview Page link to Glossary of Terms
Historical Information page link to Alkali Fuel Cells link to Molten Carbonate page link to Phosphoric Acid page link to Proton Exchange Membrane page link to Solid Oxide page

Fuel Cell Origins: 1840-1890

Despite their modern high-tech aura, fuel cells actually have been known to science for more than 150 years. Though generally considered a curiosity in the 1800s, fuel cells became the subject of intense research and development during the 1900s. This section provides a brief overview of a few of the earlier fuel cell researchers and their contributions. History about major fuel cell types can be found in the sections of this site that focus on those particular cells.

If you have or know about historical materials relating to these researchers (or if you know of another important researcher we should include) please be sure to respond to the questionnaire:
Collecting Fuel Cell History


Grove's drawing of a gas battery apparatus, 1843
Grove's drawing of one of his experimental "gas batteries" from an 1843 letter
William Robert Grove (1811 -1896), a Welsh lawyer turned scientist, won renown for his development of an improved wet-cell battery in 1838. The "Grove cell," as it came to be called, used a platinum electrode immersed in nitric acid and a zinc electrode in zinc sulfate to generate about 12 amps of current at about 1.8 volts.

Grove discovered that by arranging two platinum electrodes with one end of each immersed in a container of sulfuric acid and the other ends separately sealed in containers of oxygen and hydrogen, a constant current would flow between the electrodes. The sealed containers held water as well as the gases, and he noted that the water level rose in both tubes as the current flowed.

In 1800, British scientists William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle had described the process of using electricity to decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen. But combining the gases to produce electricity and water was, according to Grove, "a step further that any hitherto recorded." Grove realized that by combining several sets of these electrodes in a series circuit he might "effect the decomposition of water by means of its composition." He soon accomplished this feat with the device he named a "gas battery"– the first fuel cell.

Christian Schönbein (1799 -1868) and Johann Poggendorff (1796 -1877) were among a number of scientists who debated the question of exactly how Grove's gas battery worked. When Grove unveiled his gas battery, the scientific community was struggling to understand the basic principles of chemistry and electricity, matter and energy. What caused current to flow between some substances but not others?

"Contact theory" implied just that, a physical contact between materials. Alessandro Volta (1745 - 1827) had proposed contact theory to explain how his 1799 battery worked. A rival "chemical theory" supposed that a chemical reaction generated the electricity. Grove's gas battery became a football in the sometimes heated argument between backers of the two competing theories.

Grove's friend and correspondent Schönbein, among others, argued for the chemical theory. Poggendorff who, according to Wilhelm Ostwald, "had taken [the] mission of defending Volta's theory at every opportunity," argued for the contact theory. Grove himself accepted the chemical theory, though the debate faded as scientific knowledge advanced. Ironically, both theories held some truth in the end. Chemical reactions in a fuel cell's gas diffusion electrodes take place in "the contact zone where reactant, electrolyte and catalyst meet." [Note]

drawing of Wilhelm Ostwald, about 1905
Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald
Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald (1853 -1932), a founder of the field of physical chemistry, provided much of the theoretical understanding of how fuel cells operate. In 1893, he experimentally determined the interconnected roles of the various components of the fuel cell: electrodes, electrolyte, oxidizing and reducing agents, anions, and cations.

Grove had speculated that the action in his gas battery occurred at the point of contact between electrode, gas, and electrolyte, but was at a loss to explain further. Ostwald, drawing on his pioneering work in relating physical properties and chemical reactions, solved the puzzle of Grove's gas battery. His exploration of the underlying chemistry of fuel cells laid the groundwork for later fuel cell researchers.

For fuel cells, the fact that there was argument and debate may be more important than the details. The gas battery in the nineteenth century spurred research and the testing of theories. While the understanding of the basic science improved, no practical device emerged despite several attempts. Work on the science of fuel cells continues, but today's work is more about developing better materials and more efficient designs, rather than discovering the basic laws of science.

With greater understanding of fuel cell science came attempts to make practical fuel cells. On the next page we will see some of those early attempts.

Note: or an interesting look at the chemical versus contact debate see Helge Kragh's article, "Confusion and Controversy: Nineteenth-Century Theories of the Voltaic Pile," pp. 133-157 in F. Bevilacqua and L. Fregonese, eds., Nuova Voltiana: Studies on Volta and his Times, vol. 1 (2000). For a technical explaination of the contact zone (and the quote) see, Karl Kordesch and Günter Simader, Fuel Cells and their Applications, (Weinheim: VCH, 1996), p. 38. [Return]

Top Ahead to Origins: 1880-1965

©2004 Smithsonian Institution
(Copyright Statement)


Site Map Sources