Optimistic Times – Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”       Winston Churchill

Uncertainty about the future exists everywhere; change creates hesitation. Should the government go ‘right’, should it lean ‘left’, should it turn ‘green‘?  Which energy policy should be promoted?  Nature itself seems uncertain of where to go.  Observe a river turning left and right, snaking back and forth across a valley.  Yet, Mother Nature perseveres and wins in the end.

Nature has provided us with all the potential energy known to us – and others soon to be discovered.  We have not yet sufficiently learned how to make it all work for us. Albert Einstein said, “Ve get too soon old and too late schmart” – as individuals. But as a society, we have the collective smarts, which anybody with a keyboard can tap into.  The information age should give us the opportunity to sort out what is best for all the species that depend on the Earth for survival.

“We are addicted to oil”, a world-leader sharing my first name admitted some time ago. Being addicted to anything is bad news.  Sparingly used at first, petroleum products later became ‘a way of life’ and now almost dominate most industries. Habitual use has eventually become our ‘addiction’ to pollution-causing hydrocarbons.  It has allowed the western world to climb out of the agricultural age and allowed large companies to rise to riches.  Any excess or addiction is abnormal; our dependency on oil has caused pollution, global warming, strife between nations and misery.

“You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge”, well-known TV psychologist Dr. Phil proclaims.  Of course, we all know this very well: recognize the problem and seek a solution. It should be helpful to reflect on all of this, before exploring in more detail the one combination we now think will eliminate many of our present problems, be they ecological, economical or even of a social character.

Let’s be optimistic and use hydrogen, the carbon-free energy carrier, as our next step in the evolution of society. Humanity has advanced from the Stone Age to the next era, not because of the lack of stones, but because humans discovered a better way.  We are now on the threshold of advancing to the hydrogen age, not because we are running out of petroleum – we gained new knowledge available in the current information age; – we have gained insight into a better future.

Should we blame the “infernal consumption engine” (ICE) for all of our present problems, because we changed its diet from a real gas to petroleum in its early years, and it became gluttonous in adulthood? Or should we blame ourselves for another example of human ignorance, uncertainty, or fear of change?

You may already have noticed that I am writing this fuel cell history with a leaning towards motor vehicles because that is my occupational background.  Though officially retired, my passion for automobiles and my keen interest in the progress and future of all means of transportation compels me to keep up to date.  Weekly automotive newspaper columns since 2002 have made it a routine for me to search out new technology and keep files of related material.  Frequent e-mail updates from most major manufacturers make that chore an easy task.  My earlier Fuel for Thought newspaper columns reported on the future and explained new technology by linking it to the old. Now I can share with you what I have discovered.


Before delving into the emergence of fuel cells and their diet, we should explore the history leading up to their appearance. In this context, the steam engine, and later the internal combustion engine with all its variations should not be forgotten.  After all, it is the shortcoming of all heat engines that has led us (back) to the electric motor and its care and feeding.

Next: Early times


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