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:
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.
drawing of one of his experimental "gas batteries" from
an 1843 letter
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]
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
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]