Exploratory Times – Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History

“Three great actions; Explore, Experiment, Evolve.”                    Laila Gifty Akita

The French Patent Number 731 gave Rivaz title to the use of combustible gasses, instead of steam, in a piston-type engine.  The combustion pushed a heavy piston upward in a cylinder.  Atop the piston is a toothed rod that engages with a gear wheel on its way down.  In turn, the gear wheel uses a pulley and rope system to drive a vehicle’s road wheels. (See the picture at History of Hydrogen Cars 1807 – 1986′ on this site.)

In 1813 Rivaz drove an ‘auto-mobile’ with this engine, fueled by hydrogen gas from a balloon.  He initiated 25 combustions with a hand-held igniter in succession and the wagon traveled a few hundred meters.  This little-known event was the first time in history that a vehicle was set in motion by an internal combustion engine, and the first time hydrogen was used as a fuel; The first H2-powered ICE vehicle on record.  Clearly, this prototype needed a little more development before mass production could begin!!

The first time an internal combustion engine (ICE) was used in an industrial application, occurred in 1823.  Samuel Brown, an English engineer, developed and patented a new version of the combustion engine.  He filled a closed chamber with a gas flame to expel the air; he then “condensed the flame by injecting water, and so operated an ‘air engine’ by exhausting into the partial vacuum obtained”.  He got the idea from James Watt’s condensing steam engine.  Brown’s engine was used to pump water, propel a boat on the River Thames, and drive a road carriage.  Ten years after Rivaz, Brown designed an engine that also used hydrogen as a fuel. In a test, the engine pushed a vehicle up Shooter’s Hill in London in the following year.

It is hard for us to comprehend how much trouble these pioneers went through to accomplish what we take for granted; no knowledge of which materials would stand up to the temperature and pressure of combustion; what fuel to use to allow controlled, rather than spontaneous, combustion; how to solve the lubrication requirements of high speed friction.  (The 1902 WOOT auto-buggy your truly handled at a museum and mentioned previously, has leather wheel bearing lubricated by animal fat, originally; normal for that time, but farfetched for today’s young minds.)

Modern reconstruction of Rivaz’s vehicle by the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.          

From the 1820s to the 1860s, in the industrialized world of the time, inventions and patent applications emerged yearly, trying to improve the usefulness of engines and their components.

In the 1830s, the exact year unknown, Robert Anderson of Scotland developed the first electric carriage. It was driven by rechargeable batteries, which powered a small electric motor. Those batteries were very heavy, expensive, and the vehicle needed to stop all too often for re-charging.  Another fifty years of trial and error, guess and go, success and failure, were needed until the French Gustave Trouve introduced a more or less acceptable electric “automobile” in Paris in 1881.  (That now universally familiar word was first used in 1898 by ‘Scientific American’; it used the phrase “automobile carriage” [must read!] in a review of the Winton Motor Carriage.) Historical accounts, even in the most industrialized countries, are vague at best, as I mentioned before.  My research found three pioneers being credited with inventing the electric motor: Zenobe Theophile Gramme in 1826, Michael Faraday in 1831 and Thomas Davenport in 1834. The Elektrotechnisches Institut (ETI) opens up more information on this, and PBS gives us a timeline of EVs until 2009.

Looking back in history, during these early years, many keen inventors made countless bold attempts to free themselves from the horse-and-wagon-mode of transport. Before 1890, it was more a matter of coming up with new ideas based on their curiosity, or creating gadgets for their own convenience than to set up a new industry; far too many details remained unresolved for too many years for that to happen.

Next: Festive Times



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