The history of fuel cell (FC) begins with Sir William Grove who completed experiments on the electrolysis of water in 1839.
From 1889 until the early twentieth century, many people tried to produce a FC that could convert coal or carbon to electricity directly. These attempts failed because not enough was known about materials or electricity.
In 1932, Francis Bacon developed the first successful FC. He used hydrogen, oxygen, an alkaline electrolyte, and nickel electrodes. In 1952, Bacon and a co-worker produced a 5-kW fuel cell system.
The large boost in FC technology came from NASA. In the late 1950's, NASA needed a compact way to generate electricity for space missions. Nuclear was too dangerous, batteries too heavy, and solar power too cumbersome. The answer was FCs. NASA went on to fund 200 research contracts for FC technology.
Both the alkaline and polymer electrolyte fuel cells have demonstrated their capabilities in the Apollo, Gemini and Space Shuttle manned space vehicle programs.
The major efforts are presently focused on developing stationary power units and power systems for transportation applications, i.e. electric vehicles.
There are presently five major fuel cell types: alkaline fuel cell (AFC), molten carbonate fuel cell (MCFC), phosphoric acid fuel cell (PAFC), polymer electrolyte fuel cell (PEMFC), and solid fuel cell (SOFC)
See also: History and life of a fuel cell