Fuel Cell: Grove generates energy in a cell
Early telegraphs led to improved communication but were limited by a lack of readily available power. In 1839, Welsh scientist Sir William Grove (1811-1896) tried to tackle this problem by designing a device that could generate a strong flow of electricity. Grove’s electrochemical device harnessed the energy released by a chemical reaction to generate electricity.
Grove’s first attempt consisted of zinc in dilute sulphuric acid and platinum in concentrated nitric acid, separated by a porous pot. The “Grove Cell” was the favoured power source in the mid-nineteenth century because it produced a strong current. However, as telegraph traffic increased it soon became apparent that the cells were releasing poisonous, nitric oxide gas. Large telegraph offices were filled with smoke from rows of hissing Grove cells.
Grove’s second electrochemical cell the “Gas Voltaic Battery” provided the basis for the modern fuel cell. His idea was based on the fact that sending an electrical current through water splits the molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Grove’s theory was that if you could reverse the reaction by combining hydrogen and oxygen using a catalyst like platinum then you could potentially generate electricity and water. Grove immersed two platinum strips and each encased in a tube of either hydrogen or oxygen in a tank of sulphuric acid. After completing the circuit, Grove showed that electricity was flowing by using it to convert water back into hydrogen and oxygen.
Grove had proved that his fuel cell worked but he was not an entrepreneur and his idea lay dormant for another 130 years. The term “fuel cell” was eventually coined in 1889 by Ludwig Mond and Charles Langer who developed the first practical device.