Hydrogen patents: driving innovation for a clean energy future

13 September 2023

In the context of the current global energy crisis and the urgent need to find renewable energy sources, we analyse the content of the report published by the EPO, in collaboration with the IEA, on hydrogen-related patents, highlighting the important contribution of Europe and, in particular, Spain.

13 September 2023

Agency (IEA), published a new report on hydrogen-related patents and global innovation trends across a wide range of technologies (Hydrogen patents for a clean energy future. A global trend analysis of innovation along hydrogen value chains. European Patent Office. January 10, 2023).

This report arises in the context of the current global energy crisis and the urgent need to address new technological challenges to obtain clean energy from renewable energy sources.

The report covers global patent activity in hydrogen technologies between 2011 and 2020. It analyzes all the technologies involved in its lifecycle: production, storage, distribution and transformation, and end-use applications. It also differentiates between technologies that use fossil fuels to produce hydrogen and environmentally friendly technologies that use renewable energies.

As cited in the report, the study is designed as a guide for environmental policy- and decision-makers to shed light on innovative companies and institutions that may be in a position to contribute to long-term sustainable growth and to direct resources towards promising technologies.

The rise of hydrogen as an energy carrier

Hydrogen has emerged as a key energy carrier in the transition to a more sustainable future due to its potential to provide a clean and versatile source of energy.

Hydrogen is a clean source because its combustion or use in fuel cells to generate electricity produces only water as a waste product, with no carbon emissions or pollutants. When produced using renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, it produces what is known as “green hydrogen,” making it a totally carbon-free option.

In addition, hydrogen can store energy efficiently and for long periods of time, making it an ideal solution to address the intermittency of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. It allows energy to be stored in times of excess production and released when demand is high or when renewable generation is low.

The challenges of hydrogen

Despite the advantages of hydrogen as an energy source, its production and distribution present significant challenges that must be overcome to fully exploit its potential in the transition to a more sustainable future.

While there are several methods for producing green hydrogen, water electrolysis is the most widely used. The procedure splits water into oxygen and hydrogen and requires a significant amount of electricity. The efficiency of this process must be improved to minimize losses and maximize the amount of hydrogen produced per unit of energy consumed.

Therefore, the production of clean hydrogen by electrolysis is still expensive compared to other energy sources. This makes further cost reductions necessary to make hydrogen more competitive in the energy market.
Similarly, the infrastructure for hydrogen production, transportation and distribution is also still limited and requires considerable investment for expansion. Advances in technology and logistics are needed to facilitate the efficient and safe distribution of hydrogen on a large scale.

Moreover, hydrogen is a highly flammable gas, which poses additional challenges for its safe storage and transportation. Innovative solutions are required to ensure safety at all stages of the hydrogen supply chain.

Innovation and patents therefore play a crucial role in addressing these challenges associated with hydrogen production and distribution. Patents enable companies to protect their technologies and know-how, which in turn encourages investment in research and development to improve efficiency and reduce hydrogen production costs. Collaboration between companies, governments and research centers in the creation of innovative solutions is also facilitated by intellectual property protection through patents.
Therefore, since patent information is the earliest possible signal of industrial innovation, this report provides very useful and relevant information on a complex and ever-changing technological landscape that is reaching high levels of strategic importance for decision-makers around the world.

Methodology of the report

International published patent families (IPFs) have been used as a benchmark to measure patent-related activity in the different categories of hydrogen-related technologies in a homogeneous way. Based on the locations of the applicants and inventors of these patent families, it was possible to analyze the distribution of hydrogen innovation among the main global centers and clusters of hydrogen innovation in Asia, Europe and North America.

In conducting the study, new search strategies were included to compare the progress of innovation in relation to established fossil fuel processes with that of emerging technologies With the combined expertise of the EPO and IEA, the report has been able to accurately capture information on patentable hydrogen-related technologies. The analysis aims to include all technologies tracked by the IEA as potential contributors to a net zero emissions future.
driven by climate change.

Highlights of the report: Europe, leading the way overall, the results show that the world ranking of hydrogen-related patents is led by the European Union (28%) and Japan (24%), followed by the United States (20%), in third position. In addition, the study shows that while hydrogen patents grew in Europe and Japan in the last decade, they declined in the United States. It also notes that international patenting activity in hydrogen technologies has remained relatively subdued in South Korea and China, although showing slight growth.

In addition to these five major innovation centers, other countries are generating significant volumes of hydrogen patents, including the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Canada.

Those responsible for the study point out that, although hydrogen production continues for now “almost entirely” with fossil fuels, patent registration is dominated by alternative low-emission methods, which “anticipates an explosion for electrolysis”, a field in which Europe stands out in new capabilities.

Thus, in relation to patents related to hydrogen technology produced with low-emission methods (green hydrogen), the report reveals that our country is among the 10 European countries with the highest number of patents in this field. Moreover, the number of Spanish patents for green hydrogen production has been exceeding the number of patents for hydrogen production from fossil fuels for more than 10 years in a row, increasing by 5% per year over the last decade. This is a higher annual growth rate than Germany (+4.2%), the Netherlands (+4.4%), and Italy (+2.6%), and second only to France (+5.7%), making it the second fastest growing country in Europe.

The report shows that environmentally friendly hydrogen technologies accounted for 76% of hydrogen-derived patents in Spain over the last ten years, which is a significantly higher proportion than in other European countries (64% in Germany, 55% in France, 59% in the Netherlands).

In the field of electrolysis, Spanish patents increased by 16% since 2011, thus pushing the overall growth of innovation in this field. The report indicates that Spain also shows a strong specialization in water molecule splitting technologies. Likewise, Spanish innovators are also very active in the development of hydrogen applications for iron and steel production, power generation, construction and shipping.

Among the various potential hydrogen end-use applications, the automotive sector has long been at the center of innovation worldwide. In fact, patents in this sector continue to grow, led mainly by Japan and Korea. In the report, the IEA and EPO note that the new heavyweights in patent filings are automotive and chemical companies focusing on electrolysis and fuel cells, but also on established technologies for the storage and distribution of liquid or gaseous hydrogen, an area of interest for these countries that plan to import stored hydrogen in the near future.

The hydrogen giants are the Japanese automaker Toyota, the South Korean industrial group Hyundai, Japan’s Honda and Panasonic, France’s Air Liquide, Germany’s Linde and BASF, and the U.S.-based Air Products.

Despite efforts in recent years to decarbonize other sectors, such as long-distance transport, aviation, power generation and domestic heating systems, the momentum recorded for the automotive sector has yet to be seen. This raises concerns about the zero emission commitments made by individual countries, which cannot be achieved without also reducing the use of fossil fuels in these other sectors.

The study also argues that more than half of the $10 billion in venture capital investment in hydrogen companies between 2011 and 2020 went to patent-pending, pending or issued startups, even though they represent less than one-third of startups.

Thus, analysis of venture capital deals involving hydrogen startups shows that more than 80% of late-stage investment in hydrogen startups was in those that had already filed at least one patent application. Therefore, it seems critical, for young companies in this highly technical field, to secure patent protection before starting to raise funds.

In Spain, several startups are driving innovation with patents in hydrogen technologies. Examples are the Sevillian entity H2B2, which deals with the development of projects for hydrogen facilities, or the Valencian Kerionics, which develops membranes for solid oxide electrolyzers.

The main Spanish hydrogen innovation technology centers are located in Madrid (with 40 international patents), Seville and Barcelona (both with 19) and Valencia (with 7).

Conclusions: current hydrogen scenario

It is important to highlight the role of start-ups in hydrogen innovation and their strong dependence on patents to bring new technologies to market. However, this report also points out some blind spots where more innovation is needed to unlock new applications of green hydrogen. In any case, the report’s findings provide a good overview of patenting trends along the hydrogen value chains, making it a valuable guide to steer the transition to a sustainable future.

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Cristina Sendín

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