In the 1880s designs for workable gas batteries
began to emerge from laboratories in Europe and the U.S. Many
researchers began to consider the possibility of converting
coal or coal gas directly into electricity by use of these
units. Coal was a major source of fuel and coal gas sometimes
was referred to as fuel gas. Grove's gas battery came to be
called a "fuel battery" and then a "fuel cell,"
though the exact details of the term's origin are still unclear.
Below is a brief overview of fuel cell researchers of the
late 19th and early 20th centuries and their contributions.
If you have or know of 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:
Langer's fuel cell design from 1889.
Chemist Ludwig Mond (1839 -1909) spent most of his
career developing industrial chemical technology such as
soda manufacturing and nickel refining. In 1889, Mond and
assistant Carl Langer (d. 1935) described their experiments
with a fuel cell using coal-derived "Mond-gas." They attained
6 amps per square foot (measuring the surface area of the
electrode) at .73 volts. Mond and Langer's cell used electrodes
of thin, perforated platinum. They noted difficulties in
using liquid electrolytes, saying "we have only succeeded
by using an electrolyte in a quasi-solid form, viz., soaked
up by a porous non-conducting material, in a similar way
as has been done in the so-called dry piles and batteries."
An example given is an earthenware plate "impregnated by
dilute sulfuric acid."
At the same time, Charles R. Alder Wright (18441894)
and C. Thompson developed a similar fuel cell. Their
report on the experiments give an idea of the limitations
of the time. "We found that the difficulty in avoiding leakage
of gasses from one chamber to another and various other
causes usually prevented the [Electro-Magnetic Force] of
a battery of n doubly-coated plates from reaching quite
as high as n times the E.M.F. obtainable from a single cell;
in no case did we obtain as high an E.M.F. as 1 volt per
cell, even with only infinitesimal currents, ...."
They concluded that, "our results were sufficiently good
to convince us that if the expense of construction were
no object, so that large coated plates could be employed,
enabling currents of moderate magnitude to be obtained with
but small current density, there would be no particular
difficulty in constructing [cells] of this kind, competent
to yield currents comparable with those derived from ordinary
small laboratory batteries; although we concluded that the
economical production of powerful currents for commercial
purposes by the direct oxidation of combustible gasses did
not seem to be a problem likely to be readily solved, chiefly
on account of the large appliances that would be requisite."
In other words they could make a unit that worked in the
lab and would give a small amount of current, but would
cost too much to be practical. The French team of Louis
Paul Cailleteton (1832-1913) and Louis Joseph Colardeau
came to the same conclusion in 1894. In describing their
improved Grove cell they noted that "only precious metals"
would work and so deemed the process impractical.
At the same time W. Borchers of Germany published a paper
describing his apparatus for "direct production of electricity
from coal and combustible gasses." In response, American
C. J. Reed wrote a critique that appeared in Electrical
World and then wrote two papers describing his own work
on gas batteries. The editors of Electrical
World also commented
on the practical effect of Borchers' work, claiming that
coal was so inexpensive that a system converting 100%
of its fuel into electricity would only reduce the electricity consumer's price about 10%. They went on to state, "Assuming that the problem were really solved, it does not follow, as is often asserted, that a revolution in the electrical industry would result."
William W. Jacques (1855 -1932), an electrical engineer and chemist, was
undeterred by such figures however. In 1896, he "startled
the scientific world and general public," according to one
scientist of the day, "by his broad assertion that he had
invented a process of making electricity directly from coal."
Jacques constructed a "carbon battery" in which air was injected
into an alkali electrolyte to react (he thought) with a carbon
electrode (see image at right). It turned out, however, that
instead of electrochemical action with an efficiency of 82
percent, he was obtaining thermoelectric action with an efficiency
of about 8 percent.
Jacques' carbon battery apparatus, 1896
Hydro-electric and steam plants produced tremendous amounts of power at relatively low cost, while batteries were simple and reusable. Complex and expensive, fuel cells could compete with neither. So for a time, fuel cell research retreated back into the lab.
Emil Baur (1873 -1944) of Switzerland (along with
several students at Braunschweig and Zurich) conducted wide-ranging
research into different types of fuel cells during the first
half of the twentieth century. Baur's work included high
temperature devices (using molten silver as an electrolyte)
and a unit that used a solid electrolyte of clay and metal
oxides. In the 1940s, O. K. Davtyan of the Soviet
Union added monazite sand to a mix of sodium carbonate,
tungsten trioxide, and soda glass "in order to increase
the conductivity and mechanical strength" of his electrolyte.
Many of the designs during this period experienced unwanted chemical reactions, short life ratings, and disappointing power output. However, the work of Baur, Davtyan and others on high-temperature devices paved the way for both the molten carbonate and solid oxide fuel cell devices of today.
To a certain extent, fuel cells remained a solution in
search of a problem. As Europe plunged toward the Second
World War, a problem suggested itself to a researcher in
Britain. Francis Thomas Bacon (1904 -1992) began
researching alkali electrolyte fuel cells in the late 1930s.
In 1939, he built a cell that used nickel gauze electrodes
and operated under pressure as high as 3000 psi. During
During the war he thought they might provide a good source
of power for Royal Navy submarines in place of dangerous
storage batteries then in use and set to work at King's
College. But after a short time he was assigned to work
on underwater sound-detection and his fuel cell research
was put on hold. After the war, Bacon went to Cambridge
and over the course of the following twenty years, his progress
with alkali cells resulted in large scale demonstrations.
In 1958 he demonstrated an alkali cell using a stack of
10-inch diameter electrodes for Britain's National Research
Development Corporation. Bacon experimented with alkali
electrolytes, settling on potassium hydroxide (KOH) instead
of using the acid electrolytes known since Grove's time.
KOH performed as well as acid and was not as corrosive to
the electrodes. Though expensive, Bacon's fuel cells proved
reliable enough to attract the attention of Pratt & Whitney.
The company licensed Bacon's work for the Apollo spacecraft
While it appears that fuel cells were not used during the
war, the research of Bacon and others set the stage for
a resurgence of interest in afterwards. A question that
remains to be answered is exactly how the massive war-time
research in materials sciences influenced post-war interest
in fuel cells. Regardless, designs based on different electrolytes
broadened the range of potential applications in the 1950s
and '60s. The history becomes more complicated at this point.
Various fuel cells types began to follow divergent paths.
As interest in the general concept soared some types were
seen as more suitable for some applications than others.
And researchers like Bacon investigated on more than one
For additional fuel cell history, see the pages of this
site devoted to specific types of cells. For the sources
of quotations see the Sources