About Fuel Cells

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Hydrogen fuel cells general

In 1839, the first fuel cell was conceived by Sir William Robert Grove, a Welsh judge, inventor and physicist. He mixed hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of an electrolyte, and produced electricity and water. The invention, which later became known as a fuel cell, didn’t produce enough electricity to be useful.

In 1889, the term “fuel cell” was first coined by Ludwig Mond and Charles Langer, who attempted to build a working fuel cell using air and industrial coal gas. Another source states that it was William White Jaques who first coined the term ‘fuel cell.’ Jaques was also the first researcher to use phosphoric acid in the electrolyte bath.

In the 1920s, fuel cell research in Germany paved the way to the development of the carbonate cycle and solid oxide fuel cells of today.

In 1932, engineer Francis T Bacon began his vital research into fuels cells.

Early cell designers used porous platinum electrodes and sulfuric acid as the electrolyte bath. Using platinum was expansive and using sulfuric acid was corrosive. Bacon improved on the expensive platinum catalysts with a hydrogen and oxygen cell using a less corrosive alkaline electrolyte and inexpensive nickel electrodes.

It took Bacon until 1959 to perfect his design, when he demonstrated a five-kilowatt fuel cell that could power a welding machine. Francis T. Bacon, a direct descendent of the other well known Francis Bacon, named his famous fuel cell design the ‘Bacon Cell.’
In October of 1959, Harry Karl Ihrig, an engineer for the Allis – Chalmers Manufacturing Company, demonstrated a 20-horsepower tractor that was the first vehicle ever powered by a fuel cell.
During the early 1960s, General Electric produced the fuel-cell-based electrical power system for NASA’s Gemini and Apollo space capsules. General Electric used the principles found in the ‘Bacon Cell’ as the basis of its design. Today, the Space Shuttle’s electricity is provided by fuel cells, and the same fuel cells provide drinking water for the crew.

NASA decided that using nuclear reactors was too high a risk, and using batteries or solar power was too bulky to use in space vehicles. NASA has funded more than 200 research contracts exploring fuel-cell technology, bringing the technology to a level now viable for the private sector.
The first bus powered by a fuel cell was completed in 1993, and several fuel-cell cars are now being built in Europe and in the United States. Daimler Benz and Toyota launched prototype fuel-cell powered cars in 1997.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device. It produces electricity from external supplies of fuel (on the anode side) and oxidant (on the cathode side). These react in the presence of an electrolyte. Generally, the reactants flow in and reaction products flow out while the electrolyte remains in the cell. Fuel cells can operate virtually continuously as long as the necessary flows are maintained.
Fuel cells differ from batteries in that they consume reactants, which must be replenished, while batteries store electrical energy chemically in a closed system. Additionally, while the electrodes within a battery react and change as a battery is charged or discharged, a fuel cell’s electrodes are catalytic and relatively stable.

Many combinations of fuel and oxidant are possible. A hydrogen cell uses hydrogen as fuel and oxygen as oxidant. Other fuels include hydrocarbons and alcohols. Other oxidants include air, chlorine and chlorine dioxide.