Who invented the hydrogen fuel cell?

The hydrogen fuel cell has a surprisingly long history. It dates back to 1838 when Welsh scientist, William Robert Grove, published his paper “On a new voltaic combination”.

By 1839 he had developed the first “Grove voltaic cell”, using zinc and platinum electrodes, exposure to two different acids, and separated by a porous ceramic pot.

Later, Grove would write a letter to Michael Faraday to describe a new invention. His description is quite clear, and quite remarkable:

“I have just completed a curious voltaic pile which I think you would like to see...[the instrument is] composed of alternate tubs of oxygen and hydrogen through each of which passes platina foil so as to dip into separate vessels of water acidulated with sulphuric acid...with 60 of these alternations I get an unpleasant shock & decompose not only iodide of potassium but water so plainly that a continuous stream of fine bubbles ascends from each electrode.”

In other words, in 1842, Grove had invented the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell.

He called it the “gas voltaic battery” – see here for a diagram.

The more you read about Grove, the more you realise that he saw electricity as the future. Of course, he was correct, but born in 1811 and died in 1896, his life spanned the greatest energetic burst that the world had ever seen – and it was all based on coal and steam.

The world might be very different today if, instead of coal, the industrial revolution had paid more attention to Grove, Wales’ other great contribution to energy.

At least the steampunks are happy!