Fuel-cell vehicle

The story of the alternative fuel source is protracted but its potential benefits have led people to persevere with developing the expensive and complicated technology

The combination of increasingly stringent emissions legislation and the fact that oil reserves are depleting is spurring the industry into developing alternative fuel sources.

Fuel-cell technology is one of them but in many respects it cannot be considered new, having a long and chequered history that crosses not just this and the previous century but also extends into the 1800s.

The term ‘fuel cell’ was actually coined in 1889, but referred to an attempt to build a battery using air and industrial coal gas rather than the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen that is now commonly associated with the phrase.

Christian Schönbein, a German chemist also known for discovering ozone gas and guncotton, is credited with creating traditional fuel-cell theory – before the term fuel cell existed.

His paper, published in 1839, concerning observations he made on the chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, formed the theoretical underpinning that others sought to build upon.

At the same time William Grove, independently of Schönbein, was exploring novel ways of producing electricity. Using the knowledge that electrolysis could split water into hydrogen and oxygen, Grove sought to reverse the process – to generate electricity.

Grove built a battery with a zinc electrode lying in sulphuric acid and a platinum cathode in nitric acid, with the two liquids separated by a porous ceramic pot. Grove demonstrated the device’s ability to produce light.

Pause for a century

Known as the Grove Cell, it is considered to be the first practical example of fuel-cell technology and was used as a power source in early telegraph communication.

However the plentiful supplies of oil at the time, plus newly uncovered ways of refining the fuel, as well as the arrival of the dynamo soon after Grove’s creation, meant that subsequent motivations for further development of the complicated fuel-cell technology were minimal.

tags: April 2016 Powertrain