Cambridge fuel cell technology helped power Apollo Moon landing
Fuel cell technology conceived at Marshall in Cambridge was developed to help power the Apollo 11 Moon landing – the 50th anniversary of which is celebrated this week.
Tom Bacon, who worked on the project with the Marshall team in Cambridge, was feted by then President Richard Nixon.
The President put his arm round Bacon’s shoulder and told him: “Tom, without you we would not have gotten to the Moon.”
Marshall worked on a contract with Tom in the 1950s on the North Works in Hangar 6 in one of the bays now used as a workshop by Marshall Motor Group) with Tom Bacon to develop the fuel cells which produced the power and water for the Apollo space missions.
Marshall was only involved in an early stage of the project: Pratt & Whitney took it to the final stage but the work done at Marshall made it all possible.
In his book, The Marshall Story, Sir Arthur Marshall recalled: “Our many contacts with the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) and their first-hand experience of our capabilities stood us in good stead when the question of work on the Bacon Fuel Cell arose.
“A fuel cell is a piece of equipment which, fed with hydrogen and oxygen or some other gases or liquids, produces electricity.
“Francis Thomas (Tom) Bacon lived near Cambridge and his life’s work was the development of fuel cells. The NRDC decided to support further development of his work and a contract was established whereby Tom would provide the technical input and team up with Marshall with the object of developing a reliable, automatically controlled fuel cell to generate higher power than the lighting of a few bulbs which had previously been achieved under laboratory conditions. This was an exciting and challenging project.
“The company appointed John Frost as project manager responsible to John Huntridge (joint managing director). After two-and-a-half years’ work, on Monday 25th August 1959 we demonstrated to those interested in fuel cells, including the Press, a fuel cell with an output of six kilowatts driving a forklift and a circular saw and providing power for arc welding.
“This unit was not commercially viable but it was one stage closer to a practical solution than anything that had been achieved before.
“The principles of Tom Bacon’s fuel cell as developed at Cambridge were further developed by Pratt & Whitney of America and used in the Apollo moon landing in 1969 for which the fuel cell provided electrical energy and, from the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, water for drinking and humidification.
“I posed the question to Keith Williams, who was writing on behalf of the Royal Society a biographical memoir on the late Tom Bacon’s work: “Would the Apollo moon mission have been possible but for Tom’s life’s work and his work with us at Cambridge?” Williams replied that he could not do better than to record Tom quoting the occasion when President Nixon put his arm around his shoulder and said, ‘Tom, without you we would not have gotten to the moon.’
“Pratt & Whitney wrote to Tom after the successful Apollo flight congratulating him on the part his fuel cells had played in the mission and recording that the three fuel cells were one hundred percent reliable. The electrical energy used during the mission was of the order of 400 kilowatt hours.”