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Fuel Cell Engineers


The first fuel cell was created in 1839 by Sir William Robert Grove, a Welsh lawyer and physicist. His "Grove gas voltaic battery" was a primitive fuel cell that did not create enough electricity to be useful. The term fuel cell was coined in 1889 by chemists Charles Langer and Ludwig Mond, based on their extensive research on the subject matter. However, interest in fuel cells declined in the late 1800s as the internal combustion engine was introduced. Fuel cell interest picked up again in 1939, when Cambridge University researcher Dr. Francis Thomas Bacon began working with and upgrading Langer and Mond's machinery. Bacon called his fuel cell device the "Bacon Cell," and he continued improving on it for the next 30 years. The Bacon Cell is considered to be the first alkaline fuel cell. By 1959, he had created a workable fuel cell that produced enough energy to power a welding machine. In that same year Harry Karl Ihrig of Allis-Chalmers, a U.S. farm equipment manufacturing company, created the first fuel cell–powered vehicle (a tractor).

In the 1950s and 1960s the fuel cell was developed further for space exploration use. The Grubb-Niedrach fuel cell, named for the researchers who created it, was developed through a partnership between NASA and General Electric. This fuel cell was used to power manned flights and was used in the Gemini space missions. It was the first commercial use of a fuel cell and NASA continues to use fuel cells in its space missions today.

Researchers and engineers focused again on fuel cell systems and technology in the 1970s, when the energy crisis illuminated the need for alternative energy sources. Automobile manufacturers and utilities started developing fuel cell technology in the 1980s. Ballard, a Canadian company, created the first marketable fuel cell-powered vehicle. Toyota Motor Corp. launched the fuel cell–powered Mirai in 2015, and Honda introduced the next generation Honda Clarity Fuel Cell vehicle in 2017. Other automakers are currently developing fuel cell–powered vehicles that they plan to market. 

Fuel cells are now widely used for various purposes, such as to power forklifts, vending machines, highway road signs, laptop computers, vacuum cleaners, and cell phone, radio, and 911 towers. Many industries, including hospitals, banks, police stations, credit card processing centers, and wastewater treatment plants, rely on fuel cells to perform vital tasks. Fuel cell engineers will continue to be needed to help advance fuel cell performance and efficiency.

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