Fuel Cell Pioneers

Inventors whose contributions were truly revolutionar.

By Harry Small, Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies

The development of hydrogen fuel cell technology is a story full of incredible pioneers and innovators – giants on whose shoulders we stand as we strive to make the hydrogen economy a reality. There are a few names that shine particularly brightly, a few scientists and inventors whose contributions were truly revolutionary. There is Christian Schonbein who developed the first crude fuel cell in 1838. William Robert Grove is one of them, of course, as the inventor of the 'gas voltaic battery'. So is Francis Thomas Bacon, whose experiments with electrolytes and electrodes resulted in the 50kW Alkali fuel cell. Also, it's impossible to overlook George Heise and Erwin Schumacher's groundbreaking research that paved the way for the hydrogen powered machines of today.

Then there's the small team of engineers who built on Heise's and Schumacher's work to create some of the first ever fuel cell vehicles for Union Carbide, and later for NASA's Apollo missions. Led by Karl Kordesch and Carl A. Grulke, this extraordinary group laid the foundations for companies like Horizon, half a century later, to bring this technology onto our roads and into our homes and schools.

So imagine how amazed and delighted we were to receive an email from Carl Grulke's son, Bruce, who sent us the astonishing photographs (shown in this article) of those early innovators and inventions.

Someone sent me the link to one of your kits and it was great. I noticed a reference to the FIRST fuel cell car. My dad worked at Union Carbide and invented the fuel cell for NASA's Apollo Mission back in the sixties with Karl Kordesch. Attached are some pictures of the REAL – FIRST Fuel cell car... Keep up the good work! – Bruce.

Thanks to Bruce's generosity, Horizon is able to share a few wonderful snapshots of some of the very first fuel cell technology innovations. The first fuel cell car, the first fuel cell bike and fuel cell implementations for the Apollo missions – it doesn't get better than this!

Of course, our aim is to be the first to roll out affordable fuel cell vehicles &ndash we're very much aware that it's the brilliant work undertaken by men like Carl Grulke that have made our products possible. In fact, almost everyone in our product group can derivatively draw a line back to the amazing work this small group of scientists undertook in the 1960s and '70s.

Transport Solutions

The first fuel cell to power a car was invented by Grulke and his team in the 1960s. GM would go on to use these Union Carbide fuel cells in their 'Electrovan' - the first vehicle to use fuel cells to directly power the wheels. The van was only used as an in-company vehicle, but could travel up to 120 miles on a full tank and achieve speeds as high as 70 mph.

Today, Horizon builds on these incredible developments in collaboration with Arcola Energy. Riversimple and the Microcab have combined Horizon's compact, efficient fuel cells with a powerful super capacitor to deliver much higher levels of performance. By significantly reducing the weight of the car (Riversimple weighs in at only 770 lbs) it's now possible to travel up to 240miles between refills.

On Two Wheels

Kordesch and Grulke were experimenting with a hydrogen motorcycle as early as 1966. It was a hybrid, using a fuel cell and a NiCad battery in tandem, and posted an impressive 200 miles to the gallon. This leap forward in electric bike technology lead directly to the commercialization of electric motorcycles.

Our own two-wheeled solutions allow existing electric bike users to upgrade to a fuel cell hybrid system. The Horizon bike kit is a simple "plug and play" hydrogen energy source, instantly extending the range of the bike by five hours. The system uses a 300W PEM fuel cell and a metal hydride canister that can be refilled from compressed hydrogen cylinders. As well as this retro-fitted solution, Horizon also offers a ready-to-ride hybrid bike.

Space Travel

Kordesch, Grulke and the rest of the team would go on to design and implement alkali fuel cell technology for the Apollo missions. The relative molecular mass of hydrogen (the sum of all relative atomic masses in a hydrogen molecule) is lower than any other element yet in its oxidized liquid form, it's the most powerful rocket fuel there is. More specifically, Hydrogen fuel cells are used to run the electrical system of the space shuttle – with the added advantage that they produce water as a byproduct which is safe for the crew to drink.

From the very beginning at Horizon, we've continued the close relationship of fuel cells to cutting edge NASA research. It began in 2006 when we provided ultra-light fuel cell stacks to power NASA's unmanned aircraft and that collaboration resulted in the creation of Horizon Energy Systems - a subsidiary of Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies – that specializing in light, high-powered fuel cell stacks designed for long distance electric flight.
Union Carbide's hydrogen fuel cell for vehiclesUnion Carbide's hydrogen fuel cell for vehicles

Kordesch and Grulke's hybrid bikeKordesch and Grulke's hybrid bike

Alkali fuel cell technology for the Apollo missionsAlkali fuel cell technology for the Apollo missions

Grulke and Kordesch's team of fuel cell pioneersGrulke and Kordesch's team of fuel cell pioneers


For Kordesch, education was an important part of the move away from fossil fuels and towards hybridization - maintaining an almost constant relationship with Graz Technology University from 1977 onwards. Similarly, Horizon's education kits are a crucial part of our product range, allowing us to spread knowledge and awareness of fuel cell technology and clear up some of the misconceptions about hydrogen.

Another advantage of focusing on smaller, simpler technology is that we ourselves learn important lessons that we can apply to large scale projects. Sometimes it's easier to resolve issues and discover possible improvements when the technology is stripped down to its basic components.

As we look to expand our range of hydrogen-powered products and innovate ever more efficient powerful fuel sources, it's always valuable to refer back to those first fuel cell pioneers. Everything we produce in the modern era builds upon their trailblazing work. Most importantly, we need to recognize, as they did, the importance of looking to the future and exciting the next generation about the potential of fuel cell technologies.

Editor's note: As a customer editorial, the statements and opinions of the author do not necessarily represent the views of Jameco.
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