A Little Shelford scientist was critical to the success of the Apollo moon project.
Tom Bacon developed the fuel cell used as part of the Apollo moon project in the 1960s. Fuel cells were first demonstrated by Sir William Grove in 1839 but his invention laid largely dormant for over 100 years until it was revived by Tom Bacon.
Dr Francis ‘Tom’ Bacon OBE, FRS lived for many years at Westfield in the High Street and subsequently at 34 High Street. He developed the first practical hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell which produces electricity electrochemically with no emissions except water.
Born at Billericay in Essex in 1904, he attended Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied engineering and then worked at the engineering firm C.A.Parsons in Newcastle. He first began to be interested in the idea of fuel cells in 1932 and did some early experiments before World War II. After the outbreak of war he continued this work at King’s College, London but was then transferred to do anti-submarine research at Fairlie on the Clyde in Scotland.
In 1946 he and his family moved south to Little Shelford. He re-started his fuel cell work at Cambridge University in the Departments of Colloid Science, Metallurgy and Chemical Engineering. During the 1940s and 1950s Tom made the crucial discoveries which enabled the highly efficient alkaline fuel cells to be later used in the Apollo spacecraft. In 1955 lack of funding resulted in his work being closed down and the apparatus was stored for six months in an outhouse at Westfield.
With further funding secured, Arthur Marshall (later Sir Arthur) generously provided space for the fuel cell work to continue at Marshall of Cambridge, a major engineering firm specialising in aviation based on the Newmarket Road. In 1959 Tom Bacon and his team at Marshall’s presented the idea of the alkaline fuel cell to representatives of British industry with the fuel cells powering a welding kit and a forklift truck but no interest was shown.
However, in1961 President Kennedy made his declaration that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Pratt and Whitney won the contract from NASA to develop alkaline fuel cells as the secondary power source for the Apollo Missions. The fuel cells provided heating, lighting and communications for the astronauts as well as water for humidification and drinking water. Pratt and Whitney assembled a formidable team of about 1,000 people and the fuel cells were developed at a cost of about $100 million.
The fuel cells performed flawlessly during all the Apollo flights. After the successful lunar landing of Apollo 11 in July 1969, Tom and his wife Barbara met astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins at a reception at 10 Downing Street. They gave him a signed photograph of the first footprint on the moon (see left). On a visit to the United States, President Nixon put his arm around Tom’s shoulders and said, "Without you Tom, we wouldn't have gotten to the moon.” After the Apollo Missions fuel cells continued to be used in all the Space Shuttles.
Tom Bacon received many medals and awards in the 1960s and 1970s, including an OBE in 1967 and he was made an Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1973. He was also awarded an honorary DSc from Newcastle University, was a founder Fellow of the Fellowship of Engineering and in 1991 was presented with the first Grove Medal.
After the Apollo Missions, fuel cell development slowed down until the importance of the environmental benefits and the potential break from fossil fuels began to be realised in the 1990s. Tom clearly saw that fossil fuels were a finite resource and would eventually run out. He realised the potential of fuel cells, with water as the only by-product, as an important step towards reducing CO2 emissions and future environmental damage.
Tom Bacon was a practical engineer at heart who was keen to see the application of his low cost alkaline fuel cells. He was always conscious of the need for new forms of hydrogen storage. Throughout his life he was interested in all types of fuel cells and their possible applications including transport such as buses and cars, distributed power generation and use in remote locations. Fuel cells are now being used in these and other applications in many different countries round the world.
He died in 1992 and is buried in the Little Shelford churchyard.
His obituary was published by the Royal Society (1993) and his papers are held in the Churchill College Archives, Cambridge. A fuel cell electrode, given to him in 1965, is now in the Whipple Museum in Cambridge. A complete fuel cell from the Apollo programme features in the Space Gallery in the Science Museum, London.
Up-to-date information about fuel cells and their current applications can be found at www.fuelcellpower.org.uk
You can read an article including quotes from Tom Bacon here
You can read an interview with Tom's daughter here
Read about the One Show coverage of Tom in 2009.