“If we drive down the cost of transportation in space, we can do great things.” Elon Musk
NASA was preparing for manned spaceflights. They were looking for a power source to provide spacecraft with electricity; batteries were too heavy, solar energy was still too expensive at that time (even for NASA) and nuclear energy was considered too risky. On what type of supply should they decide? Scientists and engineers believed fuel cells to have the best potential and awarded several companies with research contracts to come up with a practical and reliable design solution. Between 1955 and 1958 several groups of chemical engineers and scientists at General Electric (GE) worked on a suitable design of a fuel cell to generate electricity for the spacecraft of the near future. The first Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) unit was a result of this research, credited to Willard Thomas Grub. Over time, Leonard Niedrach refined the PEM-type fuel cell by using platinum as a catalyst on the membranes. The ‘Grub-Niedrach’ fuel cell was further developed in cooperation with NASA, and it became the first commercially used fuel cell in the Gemini space program.
The aircraft and engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney took a different approach in the early 1960s in developing fuel cells. They obtained a license for the patented ‘Bacon cell’. To reduce weight and complexity, P&W modified the original design and aimed for a longer useful service life than the GE system had shown. Consequently, NASA has used the P&W alkali fuel cells on the Apollo Moon mission and later during the years of the Space Shuttle flights.
In 1959, P&W also first built the hydrogen-fuelled RL10 turbo rocket, which proved so reliable that it was successfully used for more than forty years.
Even though this rush of fuel cell development and use of H2 as a fuel brought excellent reliability to this new technology, development work for more ‘down to earth’ applications, and a wider field of application, took a backseat to the more ‘exciting’ exploits in the sky. What is happening in outer space seems to be more interesting than what goes on in someone’s backyard.
Next: Backyard testing during Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History