Fuelling the future: The history of hydrogen

Hydrogen could power the economy of tomorrow. Let’s take a short look at the element’s long history – and at its future potential as an energy source!

It’s the stuff that dreams are made of: Discovered 400 years ago, hydrogen could power the economy of tomorrow. From hydrogen's early days to the first fuel cell, from powering cars to propelling trains and aircrafts, let’s take a short look at the element’s long history – and at its future potential as an energy source!

Few discoveries come with a big bang. In the case of hydrogen, however, that’s fairly surprising: The chemical element bursts with energy – and ever since it was unearthed four centuries ago, alchemists and inventors have been working to activate its potential.

This week, we’re kicking off the Shell Eco Marathon 2018, a student competition that has teams take to the track using hydrogen-powered vehicles (among other fuels). What better occasion is there to journey through the chronicle of H2 – from its discovery and utilisation to the future fuel solutions it offers?


The early days: Discovering hydrogen

In 1625, Flemish natural scientist Johann Baptista van Helmont first described hydrogen as a gas. To Helmont, the discovery might have been a brief note. From today’s view, however, it was the first step towards a world-changing innovation.

Around 140 years later, in 1766, British chemist Henry Cavendish was the one to determine hydrogen as a distinct chemical element – by reacting zinc with hydrochloric acid. He also found that water was made of hydrogen and oxygen.

In 1800, William Nicholson and Sir Anthony Carlisle discovered the secret process of electrolysis. Their finding: By applying an electric current to water, the liquid can be split up into its key components – hydrogen and oxygen.

Four decades later, in 1839, German-Swiss physicist Christian Friedrich Schönbein detected that electrolysis also works the other way around: When combined, hydrogen and oxygen produce an electric current. An early version of the fuel cell was born.

Almost one century later, inventor Rudolf Erren started modifying combustion engines to use hydrogen and hydrogen mixtures – proving that the element can potentially power an automobile.


Plans of pioneers: Hydrogen prototypes

While Helmont and others laid the foundation for hydrogen research, it was Schönbein and Erren who first put the element’s practical use on display. Luckily, others took it from there.

In 1959, Francis T. Bacon built the first hydrogen-air fuel cell to power a welding machine. In the same year, U.S. engineer Harry Karl Ihrig showcased the first H2 fuel cell vehicle – a 20-horsepower tractor. With environmental awareness on the rise in the 1970s, Linde started developing concepts for the production, storage, transport and fuelling of H2.

About one decade later, the world watched hydrogen take 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, built at Solar-Wasserstoff-Bayern. In 1994, Daimler Benz rolled out its NECAR I (New Electric CAR) fuel cell vehicle.

In the new Millennium, hydrogen development sped up significantly. In 2000, Ballard Power Systems showed the first proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell for cars at the Detroit Auto Show. Just four years later, hydrogen conquered the waves with the first fuel-cell powered submarine trialled by the German navy.


Hydrogen: Today and tomorrow

In the modern age, hydrogen expanded its focus to a variety of applications beyond prototypes. In 1999, Linde and partners BMW and Aral opened the world’s first public fuelling station for liquid and gaseous H2 at Munich Airport. Japan eventually started bringing H2 electricity into our homes: Since 2009, you can buy H2-powered residential fuel cells.

In 2011, Linde’s UK subsidiary BOC launched HYMERA®. This was the first 150 watts (W) hydrogen fuel cell-powered electricity generator. New models provide up to 175W of peak power.

In 2015, Linde helped build the Energiepark Mainz. A major milestone in practical hydrogen application, the facility uses surplus power from wind turbines to produce hydrogen. Thus, it successfully turns wind energy into “green” hydrogen.

The same year, BOC launched the Aberdeen hydrogen bus project, creating Europe’s largest fuel cell bus fleet and the largest hydrogen fuelling station in the UK.

Most recently, in 2017, Linde committed to providing an H2 station for a joint mobility project in Germany: The initiative will see 14 hydrogen-powered Coradia iLint trains (manufactured by Alstom) roam the federal state of Lower Saxony.

And the future? The H2 chronicle will continue – and we’re likely to see more hydrogen energy solutions with Linde at the very centre.


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