William Robert Grove - Father of Fuel Cell technology

William Robert Grove - Father of Fuel Cell technology

William Robert Grove

Biography & contributions

William Robert Grove, the physical scientist was born on July 11, 1811 – died on August 01, 1896. Grove showed proof of the thermal dissociation of atoms within a molecule, and also showed steam in contact with a strongly heated platinum wire is decomposed into hydrogen and oxygen in a reversible reaction.

Grove also developed the two-fluid electric cell, consisting of amalgamated zinc in dilute sulfuric acid and a platinum cathode in concentrated nitric acid, the liquids being separated by a porous container.

Grove was a pioneer in various technologies and inventions like fuel cell technology, grove cell, and incandescent electric light.

Grove cell

Grove cell is a novel form of electric cell, which used zinc and platinum electrodes exposed to two acids and separated by a porous ceramic pot.

Grove cell was named after the scientist William Robert Grove.

This electric cell consists of a zinc anode in dilute sulfuric acid and a platinum cathode in concentrated nitric acid, the two separated by a porous ceramic pot.

This consisted of a glass tumbler, in which a cast zinc cylinder was placed. An unglazed pottery cup was placed in the zinc cylinder. The zinc cylinder had an arm reaching to above the unglazed cup of the neighboring cell, to which a strip of platinum foil was soldered, that entered the cup. The cup was filled with concentrated nitric acid and the glass tumbler with the dilute sulphuric acid solution. Wires were soldered onto the ends of the battery to make connections. The platinum was the positive terminal, the zinc the negative.

When the current was drawn, the acid decomposed, releasing noxious fumes, instead of polarizing the cell. The Grove cell had about twice the voltage of zinc-copper batteries, which was its principal advantage. When in use, the cell gave off nitric oxide, N2O4, a poisonous gas. The expensive platinum electrode was replaced by a much cheaper one of carbon in the Bunsen or Carbon cell, where an acidic potassium dichromate electrolyte replaced the nitric acid. Grove also invented a fuel cell using hydrogen and oxygen, but it did not see practical use.

Following reaction causes generation of some amounts of electricity

Zn + H2SO4 + 2HNO3  ZnSO4 + 2 H2O + 2 NO2

Fuel Cell

The fuel cell is a device that converts the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen or another oxidizing agent. Fuel cells are different from batteries in that they require a constant source of fuel and oxygen/air to sustain the chemical reaction; however, fuel cells can produce electricity continuously for as long as these inputs are supplied.

The first commercial use of fuel cells came more than a century later in NASA space programs to generate power for probes, satellites and space capsules. Fuel cells are used for primary and backup power for commercial, industrial and residential buildings and in remote or inaccessible areas. They are also used to power fuel-cell vehicles, including forklifts, automobiles, buses, airplanes, boats, motorcycles and submarines.

The purpose of a fuel cell is to produce an electrical current that can be directed outside the cell to do work, such as powering an electric motor or illuminating a light bulb or a city. Because of the way electricity behaves, this current returns to the fuel cell, completing an electrical circuit.

There are several kinds of fuel cells and each of which operates with different mechanisms and different electrolytes. The hydrogen atoms enter a fuel cell at the anode end where a chemical reaction strips them of their electrons. The hydrogen atoms are now ionized state and carry a positive electric charge. The negatively charged electrons provide the current. In some situations, if alternating current (AC) is needed, the direct current (DC) output of the fuel cell must be routed through an inverter.

Oxygen which enters the fuel cell at the cathode end can combines in two ways - in some cell types if oxygen combines with electrons returning from the electrical circuit and hydrogen ions that have traveled through the electrolyte from the anode. In other cell types, the oxygen picks up electrons and then travels through the electrolyte to the anode, where it combines with hydrogen ions.

There certain type of fuel cells

  • Alkali fuel cells – It uses potassium hydroxide as the electrolyte.
  • Molten Carbonate fuel cells – It uses molten carbonate as electrolyte.
  • Phosphoric Acid fuel cells – It uses phosphoric acid as the electrolyte.
  • Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells – It works with a solid polymer membrane used as its electrolyte.
  • Solid Oxide fuel cells – It uses calcium, zirconium oxides as electrolytes.



[1] © From, http://americanhistory.si.edu/fuelcells/basics.htm

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