The fuel cell concept was first demonstrated by William R. Grove, a British physicist, in 1839. The cell he demonstrated was very simple, probably resembling this:
By application of a voltage across the two electrodes, hydrogen and oxygen could be extracted (the process is called electrolysis) and captured as shown (William Nicholson first discovered this in 1800). The fuel cell, or “gas battery” as it was first known, is the reverse of this process. In the presence of platinum electrodes, which are necessary as catalysts, the electrolysis will essentially run in reverse and current can be made to flow through a circuit between the two electrodes.
Nobody tried to make use of the concept demonstrated by William R Grove until 1889 when Langer and Mond tried to engineer a practical cell fuelled by coal gas. Further early attempts carried on into the early 1900’s but the development of the internal combustion engine made further research into the technology sadly unnecessary.
Francis Bacon developed the first successful fuel cell in 1932, running on pure O2 and H2 and using an alkaline catalyst and nickel electrodes. It was not until 1959 that Bacon and his colleagues first demonstrated a 5 kW device; the 27 year delay is perhaps an indication of just how difficult it is to make progress in this field of development. Harry Karl Ihrig demonstrated a 20 bhp fuel cell tractor in the same year.
Around about this time, NASA started researching the technology with a view to produce a compact electricity generator for use on spacecraft. Due to their astronomical budget, it was not long before they got the job done. The Gemini program used early PEM fuel cells (PEMFCs) in its later missions, and the Apollo program employed alkaline fuel cells. On a spacecraft the water produced by the reaction was available for the spacemen to drink. NASA continued to use alkaline cells in the space shuttle until the 90’s when PEMFC development meant a switch back to PEMs was considered a possibility, however, the high cost of design, development, test and evaluation prevented the switch, in spite of several technical advantages.
Recent developments are thick and fast as the technology begins to come to fruition. Automotive applications are high on the agenda due to the huge consumer market and the need for an environmentally friendly, renewable alternative to the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels.