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Fuel Cell Technology Workers


Although fuel cells seem like cutting-edge technology, the creation of the first fuel cell occurred in 1839. Sir William Robert Grove, a Welsh lawyer and physicist, created what he called the "Grove gas voltaic battery," a primitive fuel cell that did not create enough electricity to be useful. Fifty years later, chemists Charles Langer and Ludwig Mond conducted extensive research on fuel cells and coined the term fuel cell in 1889, but the emergence of the internal combustion engine in the late 1800s caused research on fuel cells to decline. In 1939, Dr. Francis Thomas Bacon, a researcher at Cambridge University, began working with and upgrading the machinery developed by Langer and Mond. He named the device he created the "Bacon Cell." It is considered to be the first alkaline fuel cell, and Bacon worked for nearly three decades to improve this fuel cell. In 1959, he created a truly workable fuel cell, which produced enough energy to power a welding machine. Also in 1959, Harry Karl Ihrig of Allis-Chalmers, a U.S. farm equipment manufacturing company, created the first fuel cell–powered vehicle (a tractor).

The fuel cell was further developed in the 1950s and 1960s for use in space exploration. Looking for a way to power their manned flights, NASA worked with General Electric to develop the Grubb-Niedrach fuel cell (which was named after the researchers who created it). It was used in the Gemini space missions, and was the first commercial use of a fuel cell. Fuel cells continue to be used today in NASA space missions.

The energy crisis in the 1970s prompted the U.S. government to begin conducting extensive research on the application of fuel cell systems on Earth. Utilities and automobile manufacturers began developing fuel cell technology in the 1980s. The first marketable fuel cell-powered vehicle was developed by the Canadian company, Ballard. 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. 

Today, fuel cells are in wide use in a variety of settings. They are used to power forklifts, vending machines, highway road signs, laptop computers, vacuum cleaners, and cell phone, radio, and 911 towers. Hospitals, banks, police stations, credit card processing centers, wastewater treatment plants, and other industries rely on fuel cells to perform vital tasks. Advances in technology continue to reduce production costs and improve the performance of fuel cells.