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Uncertain Times – Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History

“Science is about knowing; engineering is about doing.”           Henry Petroski

While Sir William Robert Grove’s invention of the ‘gas voltaic cell’ lay dormant for many years, steam engines were making progress. Then, suddenly, the new-fangled internal combustion engine (ICE) was in the news. It could be observed at many exhibitions and at World Fairs, and it fascinated the general public of the time.  Converting horse carriages to ‘horse-less’ became the goal of inventors and entrepreneurs.  Steam-vehicles, battery-electric motor-cars, and automobiles with a combustion engine vied for domination well into the 1920s.  We all know which one came out ahead; in large part, because the flourishing oil companies made it easy to obtain petroleum fuel. And when the electric starter motor made the hand crank obsolete, the battery-electric car vanished for almost a century.

As early as 1923, the controversial Scottish biochemist and geneticist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane presented a paper to Cambridge University about the advantages of hydrogen as a fuel and talked about a Hydrogen Economy.  He had the foresight to warn that the plentiful deposits of coal and oil would come to an end and that industry should prepare for the use of alternative fuels – in 1923!  J.B.S. Haldane suggested making use of wind-power to electrolyze hydrogen and oxygen from water.  In his opinion, Great Britain could satisfy its increasing energy demand with H2 mixed with petroleum products as a fuel for transportation needs.

[An aside: The above link directs to a lengthy article on hydrogen, fuel cells, and connected matters. Here is Carr’s advice about links: “Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they are distractions as well. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read.” -Nick Carr (from http://www.roughtype.com/?p=1378) —  Analysing the foregoing, Scott Rosenberg states, “ Web surfing is about depth, about wanting to know more.”  This writer’s advice: Check the link, and then go back to where you left off, staying on the original topic. Make a note if the link is of interest.]

Is it not a strange, but reoccurring fact that society habitually disregards visionaries and innovators during their own time? Remember, this was 1923, and JBSH was neither an automotive executive, an environmental advocate nor had he any direct interest in the industries affected by what he anticipated.  Nearly one century later, we know how right he was, and how “not worth mentioning,” Haldane’s hypothesis was perceived by his contemporaries.

In the meantime, people in different places had not given up on hydrogen as a fuel.  A great deal of H2 research occurred during the 1930s.  This proved to be the decade that really put hydrogen and fuel cell research into favor with the scientific community.

One attempt, which received little publicity, was by the Norsk Hydro Company in 1933.  The Norwegian power producer modified one of their small trucks to run on H2 instead of gasoline.  They installed an onboard reformer to extract hydrogen from ammonia.  It was cumbersome, but it foretold the future. By the way, the driver of this truck was using a REAL gas-pedal when he pressed the accelerator pedal.

[Why do you have to be such a stickler for words? Editor] ☺

Another almost forgotten fact is Sikorski’s experimentation with hydrogen-powered engines in helicopters.  After building fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft in Russia, he fled to the USA in 1917 during the Bolshevik Revolution.  Other Russian immigrants helped him financially to organize the Sikorski Aviation Research firm in 1938.  Igor Ivanovitch Sikorski was able to persuade the US government to front a two million dollar budget for further trials on vertical take-off and landing aircraft (VTOL).  He also proposed using liquefied hydrogen as a fuel for aircraft.

Sikorski helicopter in 1941      – from ASME.org

By this time, one hundred years of research and experimentation had been applied to this infinitely abundant fuel.  Scientist and industrialists had tried to find ways to utilize hydrogen’s potential to propel machines on land, on water, and in the air.  Engineers and experimenters around the world did not let go of the idea that a way would be found soon to tame nature’s gifts to humans.

Next: Tense Times


About George Wand

George Wand
Our guest writer George Wand retired from the automotive industry. During his career, he worked in R&D on advanced EV mobility concepts, and working with a museum drives his interest in history. These Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History items are but a small part of more than 750 articles he published in print and digital form. He compiled some of those in a series of eBooks from Amazon-Kindle. Racing to Preserve Precious Petroleum, Part 1 and Part 2 were released in 2016, Part 3 is ready to go by mid-2017. (Download ‘Kindle-for-PC’ or ‘Kindle-for-Mac’ and read on any computer.) Wikipedia, HowStuffWorks.com and EVWorld have referenced Wand’s thoroughly researched, plainly written articles. True to his slogan “On the inventive past the ingenious future will thrive”, Wand is passionate about sustainable mobility in a future without pollution. He has driven a variety of FCVs at Hydrogenics in his Toronto ’backyard’. An article about that will arrive here soon.

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