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Tense Times in Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History

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Now back to our history; please be aware that it is nearly impossible to draw a straight through the infancy of two closely related activities of combining various fuels and the machines which make use of it.  Repeating and overlapping experiments, discouraging failures and promising successes, different personalities in various countries doing similar tasks almost simultaneously, just as it happened with Daimler and Benz, make writing about the history of this particular topic a daunting venture.

Who would have thought that it would require almost another century of research and development, interrupted by troubles times, before fuel cells and hydrogen would come close to being ‘ready for market’?

During the decade before World War II, Rudolph Erren and Franz Lawaczeck were very influential in hydrogen research in Germany. ‘Frank L.’ was a turbine designer, and he had been sketching and endorsing hydrogen fuelled turbine autos for more than ten years. He collaborated with the American J.E. Noeggerath and the German on work leading to the use of liquefied H2 (switching from H2 hereafter for ease of formatting) as a rocket fuel.

With regard to Hermann Oberth: I do remember the excitement at my parents’ house as a youngster when my father had arranged a meeting between ‘Herr Oberth’ and other influential people shortly after WW II, and Herr Oberth gave a speech in our small town that evening.  However, that is another story.

Meanwhile, Rudolph Erren had been researching internal combustion in Germany since the 1920s, much as Sir Harry Riautodo did in England.  Erren experimented by adding hydrogen to common air-fuel mixtures to increase output.  Before World War II, Erren converted vans, buses, and railway engines to run with different combinations of hydrogen and regular fuels.  He worked together with British and Australian groups, but the troubled times of the 1930s and 1940s put an end to this peaceful collaboration between nations.

In Russia, Boris Shelishch and the GAZ automobile manufacturer ran a truck with hydrogen as a fuel in 1941.  It was wartime, though, and other priorities prevailed. The GAZ company is still in existence, and is producing contemporary vehicles in Gorky as we are writing this; the town’s name has now been changed to Nizhny Novgorod.

trucks using H2 as fuel during World War II

Germany, lacking petroleum resources, experimented extensively with synthetic fuels, (dubbed after that town’s refinery,) as well as hydrogen as a petroleum replacement.  A little-known piece of information is that the Allied Forces captured a ‘trackless’ (Under-sea) U-boat during the War. Conventional fuels leave a trail, or track, of exhaust bubbles, but in the engines of this ‘silent killer’ only hydrogen and oxygen were combusted, leaving no track of revealing bubbles. This combustion process left no other emission than water vapor, very difficult to detect in the ocean, to be sure.

When running on the surface, the submarine’s diesel engines powered an electrolyser to generate H2 for storage when running submerged.  This eliminated the need for heavy batteries and the additional electric motor(s) of other submarines of the time.  The weight and space savings resulting from this gave an additional 15,000 miles of operating range and the possibility of faster and deeper dives.

What a waste of effort and money for a needless war; and the world still has not learned the lessons from this, literally and figuratively. Will the hydrogen economy end this? We can only hope so.

Next: Field test in Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History 


About George Wand

George Wand
Our guest writer George Wand retired from the automotive industry. During his autoeer, he worked in R&D on advanced EV mobility concepts, and working with a museum drives his interest in history. These Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History items are but a small part of more than 750 articles he published in print and digital form. He compiled some of those in a series of eBooks from Amazon-Kindle. Racing to Preserve Precious Petroleum, and were released in 2016, Part 3 is ready to go by mid-2017. (Download ‘Kindle-for-PC’ or ‘Kindle-for-Mac’ and read on any computer.) Wikipedia, and EVWorld have referenced Wand’s thoroughly researched, plainly written articles. True to his slogan “On the inventive past the ingenious future will thrive”, Wand is passionate about sustainable mobility in a future without pollution. He has driven a variety of FCVs at Hydrogenics in his Toronto ’backyard’. An article about that will arrive here soon.

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