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Who Invented the First Fuel Cell?

Did you know the first fuel cell was invented over 150 years ago? Usually considered a modern, cutting-edge form of renewable energy technology – fuel cells have been around since the time of steam engines.

The very first fuel cell was ‘discovered’ by Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829), a British chemist and inventor, when he created a device that gave him an electric shock from hydrogen fuel.

Yet the man usually credited with inventing the first fuel cell is Welsh physical scientist Sir William Grove. In 1842 Grove developed the world’s first fuel cell, which worked in the same way as modern-day fuel cells (using two electrodes separated by a membrane).

Grove’s invention, however, didn’t produce enough electricity to be considered useful.

It wasn’t until around a century later, in 1932, that English engineer Francis Thomas Bacon (1904 – 1992) created the first fuel cell that could be used in practical applications. While Grove’s fuel cell produced hardly enough electricity to create an electric spark – Bacon’s had an incredible amount of power.

By 1959 Bacon had perfected his fuel cell, with the final version capable of producing 5kW of electricity (enough to power a small home). The first major application of Bacon’s fuel cell was spaceflight. Used by NASA to power space missions since the mid-1960s, Bacon’s alkaline fuel cell (AFC) was credited with solving the problem of how to the lunar capsule that took astronauts to the Moon. 

US President Richard Nixon even congratulated Francis Bacon upon the successful landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon, telling him “Without you Tom, we wouldn't have gotten to the moon”.

Since the 1960s fuel cell technology has developed at a rapid pace. The first full-size bus powered by a fuel cell was completed in 1993, and there are currently thousands of full-size trucks, cars and commercial vehicles that use fuel cell stacks are their source of power.

Since Grove’s invention almost 200 years ago, fuel cell innovation continues at a brisk pace. Supported by an array of fuel cell education equipment, young people across the world are being trained to develop even more efficient, affordable and practicable fuel cell stacks that can help transition the world to clean energy, preserving our planet for future generations. 

Interested in learning more about fuel cells? Read Horizon Educational’s Ultimate Guide to Fuel Cells in 2023.

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