A reader pointed out to me a couple of days ago that an Allis-Chalmers (AC) tractor actually predated the GM Electrovan as the world’s first fuel cell vehicle. I politely wrote back that the AC tractor ran on propane and not hydrogen.
But, I may have been too hasty with this reply, so I did a little more digging. In 1966 the GM Electrovan using a Union Carbide hydrogen fuel cell took a few laps around the General Motors’ parking lot to establish it as the first of its kind to do so.
But, on October 15, 1959 an Allis-Chalmers farm tractor with fuel cell was demonstrated in Milwaukee. The tractor was equipped with 1,008 individual cells and could haul 3,000 pounds. The Allis-Chalmers alkaline fuel cell was developed Harry Karl Ihrig, had the output of 15 kw of electricity and is currently housed in the Smithsonian Museum.
Using the same alkaline fuel cell technology first pioneered by Francis Thomas Bacon in the 1930’s, Allis Chalmers would go on to create a golf cart, submersible, and fork lift in the early 1960’s.
Propane was probably used as fuel for the alkaline fuel cell since it was readily available in that day and it is a hydrogen rich compound (C3H8). It also contains quite bit of carbon, which tends to poison alkaline fuel cells. Potassium hydroxide (or KOH) served as the electrolyte in the alkaline fuel cell.
Later versions of alkaline fuel cells would go onto use pure hydrogen and pure oxygen along with KOH to provide power. Propane would since be abandoned because of the impurities in the fuel that affect the fuel cell.
NASA went on to use alkaline fuel cells in the Gemini and Apollo missions to power onboard systems and create drinking water.
So, even though the Allis-Chalmers tractor did not use pure hydrogen to power the fuel cell it used one of the most widely available hydrogen-rich compounds at that time. The industry owes a lot to the pioneering efforts behind bringing this early fuel cell vehicle to public attention.