A fuel cell is a device that converts the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction of positively charged hydrogen with oxygen.
History of Alkaline Fuel Cells
The first fuel cells were invented in 1838. The first commercial use of alkaline fuel cells came more than a century later in the Soviet/Russian and NASA space programmes to generate power for satellites and space capsules as well powering USN submarines. Since then, novel new catalysts and nanomaterials have overcome the barriers to operation seen previously and AFC Energy is now seen as the global technical leader.
Hydrogen is their most common fuel abundant element in the universe. Fuel cells differ from batteries in that if they are provided with fuel and an oxygen source they can continuously produce electricity.
The alkaline fuel cell was first demonstrated by Welsh scientist Sir William Grove in 1839 but for a long time was considered a mere scientific curiosity.
Francis Thomas Bacon was a forerunner in fuel cell technology. Bacon was fascinated by the ability of fuel cells to directly convert chemical into electrical energy and he became convinced of their usefulness.
During the 1950s, the “Bacon Cell” emerged as the leading fuel cell technology, with a 6kW version demonstrated in 1959.
Pratt & Whitney subsequently licensed the design to power the Apollo space vehicle, an improved version of which supplied electricity for the Space Shuttle.
The “Bacon Cell” failed to find a niche outside space application, owing to its requirement for pure hydrogen and oxygen, its success in that role served as a technical beacon of the period and inspired research on many other fuel cell operating systems.
During the 1970s and 80s the cost of catalysts and limited materials availability restricted the alkaline technology development. Other chemistries appeared to offer alternative routes to power at more acceptable cost. However, it also became apparent that specific chemistries suited certain applications – there was no single best technology.