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Fuel Cell Origins

drawing of Wilhelm Ostwald, about 1905.

Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald, about 1905

Image from a pastel by Anton Klamroth, Leipzig,
from Transactions of the American Electrochemical Society, 1905

In Electrochemistry: 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."

Ostwald 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....

"The 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."

At 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."

Ostwald, 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.

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