“Successful engineering is all about understanding how things break or fail.” Henry Petroski
A well-known fact is that, in 1932, Dr. Francis Thomas Bacon, an engineering professor at Cambridge University in England, modified the lab paraphernalia, which had been used during Mond’s and Langer’s time. Bacon used a less expensive material for the electrodes and a less corrosive electrolyte. He called this first alkaline fuel cell the “Bacon cell”.
During World War II Bacon was asked to work for the British military, and he continued his research on fuel cells under the Anti-submarine Experimental Establishment. However, the war ended before he could obtain any tangible results from his laboratory work. Never giving up on a promising concept, Bacon continued, and by 1959 had patented his device. He demonstrated a fuel cell unit that developed 6 kilo-Watt of power, enough to power an electric welder.
At about that same time, in America, Harry Karl Ihrig became involved with fuel cells. He concentrated his work on farmers’ fields instead of the scientific fields. He worked for Allis-Chalmers, an agricultural implement manufacturer, where he modified one of the company’s farm tractors to run with an electric motor. To power this unusual machine, he assembled 1008 cells to generate about 15 kW of electricity (20 HP, approximately). Karl Ihrig demonstrated the world’s first fuel cell vehicle at farm shows across the country. The tractor developed enough power to pull a 1,500 kg weight or a double share plow.
To exploit that dreadful, overdone pun one more time, Ihrig was outstanding in his field. Literally.
Not available at any auction to any collector, the world’s first FVC is now at the Smithsonian Institute. The modified Allis-Chalmers D-12 weighs 1270 kg and is powered by an alkaline fuel cell (4 Stacks with 252 Cells each) delivering enough power to plow a field. The fuel was propane stored as compressed gas in a pressure tank. Model collectors among you can get a 1/16 replica of the original from SpecCast in Dyersville, Iowa.
Allis-Chalmers continued to do fuel cell research for a few years with assistance from the US Air Force. They assembled a fuel cell powered forklift, a golf cart and –hard to believe from aviators – a submersible.
In the meantime, the US air force itself experimented also with hydrogen as a fuel – again. In 1956, they modified a B-57 bomber to burn H2 in one of its engines. The pilot could switch the one jet engine to run on hydrogen during flight, instead of the normal kerosene jet fuel. The test was considered successful, but since petroleum fuel was less expensive, no further development was done.
At about the same time, Lockheed, together with Pratt & Whitney, developed a high-altitude reconnaissance plane to run on liquid hydrogen. The CL-400 aircraft got as far as wind-tunnel testing, but again, no additional development happened. The one positive outcome from these tests by the military and the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was its official finding, “that hydrogen did not require more safety precautions than that which were required for hydrocarbon fuels”.
This was a significant step in dismissing the Hindenburg myth. Besides, Hydrogen burns colorless, so the flames visible in the old film could not have been burning hydrogen.