Image courtesy of NASA

NASA photograph of the moon landings

One giant leap for fuel cell technology

19th July 2019

As the world marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing, we look back at JM’s contribution to the Apollo space programme.

  • JM supplied electrocatalysts for fuel cells used in the US space programme.
  • The fuel cells supplied power and water to astronauts.
  • The technology is now one of the energy solutions helping fuel the transition to a cleaner healthier world.

 

With the space race in full force by the late 1950s, NASA was faced with a broad range of complex challenges to overcome, and it needed to do it quickly. It soon became apparent that manned space flight was not possible without an onboard power source, since far more power would be required than could feasibly be provided by batteries. That’s where JM came in.

We’d been investigating the properties of platinum as a catalyst for making high octane fuels, backed up by our long heritage and capabilities in catalysis, membranes and coatings. That made us perfectly placed to help when NASA came calling. Since liquid hydrogen and oxygen were already carried on the spacecraft, an obvious choice was a fuel cell which generates electricity by reacting these gases over a catalyst. And the big benefit of using the fuel cell system was that the only by-product was clean, drinkable water.

It is true to say that manned space flight was dependent on the clever chemistry that went into the invention of the fuel cell. And as with so many innovations that resulted from space exploration, that was only the beginning of the story. The work in the 1950s and 60s laid the foundations for the continued development and use of fuel cells today.

In the automotive industry, where governments around the world continue to commit to ever stronger targets for reaching net zero, the fuel cell is one of the solutions that’s helping decarbonise our roads and help to create clean air for all. JM’s at the forefront of this development, investing to make the technology ever more efficient and commercially viable.

And beyond automotive the world is seeking solutions to the energy trilemma – the need for a secure supply of clean, affordable and universally accessible energy. We continue to scale up fuel cell technologies to meet this demand too, alongside the required efficiency improvements around the clean production of hydrogen.

50 years on from the moon landings, the world has changed; we’re now faced with a whole new set of challenges. We continue to use of our science at an atomic scale to develop solutions that have an impact at a global scale, making our world cleaner, healthier and fit for future generations.

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