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Fuel Cell Origins: 1880-1965

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:
Collecting Fuel Cell History


1889 fuel cell design by Ludwig Mond & Carl Langer
Mond and 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 (1844–1894) 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."

Jacques' gas battery apparatus, 1896
Jacques' carbon battery apparatus, 1896
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.

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 fuel cells.

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 type.

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 section.

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