Stories of inventors and their inventions: William Robert Grove and the first fuel cell.

Aug 31, 2020


This article was written by the IP Team of EIT InnoEnergy

We all read stories about the innovators of today and how their products or services make a difference. In this series of publications, we shed light on a side that remains often dark and unknown to the public: their patented inventions and what impact they have had on other innovators across society. We did the research and summarized our findings.

Sir William Robert Grove was a physicist, inventor and later a Welsh Judge. He is remembered in the scientific community for two of his major contributions - the general theory of the conservation of energy, and the first version of fuel cell technology. It was in the early 1840s that he developed, what he then called, the ‘gas voltaic battery’, which produced electrical energy through the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, and described it using his correlation theory. Through the development of the cell, he showed how steam could be split into oxygen and hydrogen, and that the process could be reversed, thus becoming the first person to demonstrate the thermal dissociation of molecules into their constituent atoms. However, the invention, which later became known as a fuel cell, did not produce enough electricity to be useful.

William Robert Grove was born in 1811, in Swansea in Wales, to a prosperous local magistrate and deputy lieutenant of the county. Despite his father's wishes for him to become a priest, Grove decided to pursue a career in law and was called to the bar in 1835, but ill health kept him out of active legal practice throughout the 1830s. Instead, he went on a Grand Tour of the Continent through which he revived a youthful enthusiasm for electrical experiments. William Robert Grove’s illustrious scientific career was abandoned when he returned to the law for the simple reason that he could not afford to remain as a man of science.

Both the general theory of conservation of energy and the battery were created during Grove’s tenure as Professor of Experimental Philosophy at the London Institution in the 1840s which proved to be the highlight of his scientific career. Electricity and all the inventions and discoveries related to it were the rage in the 1830s and had become Grove’s passion. It was expected to be the next big thing that would soon replace steam as the power propelling the British Empire forwards. The nitric acid battery that Grove invented in 1839 became the standard power source for the electric telegraph industry.


Grove’s words - “As it seems probable that at no very distant period voltaic electricity may become useful as a means of locomotion, the arrangement of the batteries so as to produce the greatest power in the smallest space, becomes important,” rings true to this day, where the race to build the smallest, lightest, most efficient battery is still on in full swing.


The authors of the publications have used publicly available information only and no private information was handed to them by the innovators or third parties.


The IP team at InnoEnergy specializes in combining public sources and state of the art research tools, to provide our innovative member companies with business intelligence. In this case, the following sources were used:


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