Electronics/History/Chapter 5

Space Age Tech

Fuel Cell edit

The first fuel cell was developed in the 19th century by British scientist Sir William Grove. A sketch was published in 1843. But fuel cells did not see practical application until the 1960s, where they were used in the U.S. space program to supply electricity and drinking water (hydrogen and oxygen being readily available from the spacecraft tanks). Extremely expensive materials were used and the fuel cells required very pure hydrogen and oxygen. Early fuel cells tended to require inconveniently high operating temperatures that were a problem in many applications.

Further technological advances in the 1980s and 1990s, like the use of Nafion as the electrolyte, and reductions in the quantity of expensive platinum catalyst required, have made the prospect of fuel cells in consumer applications such as automobiles more realistic.

Ballard Power Systems is a major manufacturer of fuel cells and leads the world in automotive fuel cell technology. Ford Motor Company and DaimlerChrysler are major investors in Ballard. As of 2003, the only major automobile companies pursuing internal development of fuel cells for automotive use are General Motors and Toyota; most others are customers of Ballard.

United Technologies (UTX) is a major manufacturer of large, stationary fuel cells used as co-generation power plants in hospitals and large office buildings. The company has also developed bus fleets that are powered by fuel cells.