BOC looks at the history of hydrogen – from its first discovery to powering cars and beyond…

Hydrogen has only been known to us for around 400 years – but in that time it’s come far. In the week before the start of the Shell Eco Marathon, a student competition that sees teams take to the track using vehicles powered by a variety of fuels including hydrogen, we journey through its life from discovery to modern applications.

Discovering hydrogen

It was the 17th Century when hydrogen was first discovered as a gas. Johann Baptista van Helmont described what it as ‘gas’ for the first time in 1625.

Around 15 years later, in 1776, Henry Cavendish discovered hydrogen was a distinct element by reacting zinc with hydrochloric acid. He also found that water was made of hydrogen and oxygen.

Years later in 1800 electrolysis was discovered by William Nicholson and Sir Anthony Carlisle. They found that apply­ing an electric current to water produced both hydrogen and oxygen.

Christian Friedrich Schonbein discovered in 1839 that hydrogen and oxygen combined produced an electric current, in an early version of the fuel cell.

In 1930 it was discovered that it could be used in combustion engines. Rudolf Erren started converting internal combustion engines to use hydrogen and hydrogen mixtures.


Hydrogen prototypes

Soon Erren and Schoenbein’s work with hydrogen would start to be applied more practically.


In 1959 the first hydrogen-air fuel cell was built by Francis T. Bacon. It was used to power a welding machine. In the same year, the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle was showcased by Harry Karl Ihrig – a 20–horsepower tractor.


Thirty years on and hydrogen took to the skies. In 1988, The Soviet Union’s Tupolev Design Bureau converted a commercial passenger jet engine to use liquid hydrogen.


Following this, Germany got in on the act with the first solar-powered hydrogen production plant in 1990. The plant was built at Solar-Wasserstoff-Bayern.


And then in 1994 Daimler Benz rolled out its NECAR I (New Electric CAR) fuel cell vehicle – the first new electric CAR fuel cell.


The new Millennium sped up hydrogen’s development. In 2000, the first PEM fuel cell for cars was shown by Ballard Power Systems at the Detroit Auto Show, while just 4 years later hydrogen conquered the waves with the first fuel-cell powered submarine trialled by the Germany navy.


Modern applications

In the modern age, hydrogen moved from prototypes and transport fuel to a variety of applications, such as residential fuel cells, which became available to buy in Japan in 2009.


The following year, HYMERA® was launched by BOC. This was the first 150W hydrogen fuel cell powered electricity generator . New models provide up to 175 watts of peak power.


In 2011, the first hydrogen fuel stations – at Honda in South Marston, Swindon – allowed hydrogen fuelled cars to fill up.


A major milestone in practical hydrogen application was the 2015 Aberdeen Hydrogen Bus Project. The BOC project provided Europe’s largest fuel cell bus fleet, the UK’s first commercial scale hydrogen production and bus refuelling station, and a purpose-built maintenance facility.


In the same year, The Linde Bike was revealed. It ran on a compact fuel cell generating power from hydrogen and oxygen taken from the surrounding air. It supported assisted pedalling over 100 kilometres with a single, 34-gram cylinder of hydrogen.


And just last year, in 2016, BeeZero® launched. The Linde car sharing scheme in Munich was the first in the world to exclusively use hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars.


As for the future of hydrogen, watch this space for Nick Power’s predictions for hydrogen


If you are interested to find out more about the Shell Eco-marathon and its amazing history, visit the website today.


Nick Power