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Fuel cells: Future or fantasy? Part two

3 years ago

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Andrew English | Journalist


25 November 2021

A quick aide-memoire for those who once knew but forgot. While the term ‘fuel cell’ wasn’t coined until 1889 by Ludwig Mond and Charles Langer, it was Sir William Grove who discovered the principle in 1839. This Welsh scientist and Justice of the Peace had come up with what was termed the ‘Grove Battery’, a nitric-acid cell much favoured by the US telegraph service at its inception.

When those telegraph offices grew and required more stable voltages (not to mention lower emissions of nitric gas in busy offices!), Sir William experimented with reversing the process of splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen by sending an electric current through it (electrolysis), and that, right there and then, is effectively what a fuel cell does. Sir William called his discovery the ‘gas battery’, but it wasn’t really a feasible electricity producer until the mid-20th century.

So now we need to spool forward almost a century to meet Francis Thomas ‘Tom’ Bacon, who in the early Thirties developed the world’s first practical hydrogen fuel cell and should rightly be regarded as its father. This reputedly charming old Etonian first developed an interest in the technology after reading an article in Engineering magazine about the possibility of electrolysing water with off-peak electricity and using the resulting oxygen and hydrogen to power vehicles.

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