Hydrogen patents increase as our clean energy future begins to brighten: EPO and IEA report details the encouraging advancements in hydrogen energy innovation across countries and industry sectors

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The worldwide search for clean energy solutions has never been so important. We are confined by our dependence on fossil fuels, and the countries that produce it. Facing an economic, energy and climate crisis, the world depends on its creativity and innovation to succeed.

One of many potential solutions, emerging hydrogen technologies provide a way of producing, storing, and distributing clean, low emission energy. The European Patent Office (EPO) in collaboration with the International Energy Agency (IEA) have released a report investigating trends in hydrogen energy related patents.

According to the report, the past decade has seen a significant growth in hydrogen related innovation across the world. Europe and Japan led the way, accounting respectively for 28% and 24% of all hydrogen technology International Patent Families (IPFs) between 2011 and 2020. The US was not far behind with 20% of all hydrogen IPFs. Within Europe, Germany and France are the heavyweights when it comes to hydrogen patenting, with 17% of all IPFs originating from these two countries.

Established hydrogen energy production technologies rely mainly on fossil fuels, which in 2020 alone produced 900 Mt of CO2 emissions. However, alternative hydrogen technologies focused on overcoming climate change accounted for twice as many IPF’s than those for existing technologies. Climate-friendly hydrogen production such as electrolysis is beginning to take the limelight from fossil-fuel based methods, a promising shift in hydrogen production related innovation.

In contrast, overall innovation in low-emission hydrogen-based fuels lost momentum over the past decade, following a peak in 2011. Low-emission fuels are key to a sustainable future in which sectors such as aviation and shipping no longer rely on fossil fuels. Despite an overall decline in patenting of low-emission hydrogen fuels, an increase of 12.5% for Liquid Organic Hydrogen Carriers (LHOC) and 7.8% for ammonia cracking IPF’s were observed, both relatively new low-emission fuels. Innovation in these fields is primarily concentrated in the research sector, with about half of LHOC and ammonia cracking IPF’s emerging from universities and public research organisations. Future industrial applications of these low-emission fuels could be on the horizon.

Since 2001, patenting trends have demonstrated a steady rise in well-established methods of hydrogen storage and distribution. Between 2011 and 2020 the number of IPF’s published relating to the storage of both pure hydrogen and liquid hydrogen has increased by 13%.

The EPO/IEA report finds that the majority of hydrogen innovation in the well-established technologies is by the European chemical industry rather than in research. The top ten applicants in established technologies are mainly chemical companies with a background of using fossil fuels for hydrogen production, distribution, and storage, such as Air Liquide, Linde and Air products. These three companies accounted for 22% and 25% of all liquid hydrogen and refuelling IPF’s respectively.  Encouragingly, the chemical industries also seem to be diversifying their efforts into climate motivated areas, with a focus on biomass and carbon capture, utilisation, and storage for hydrogen production.

Over the past decade the automotive industry has emerged as the front-runner in climate motivated hydrogen patenting, with electrolysis being the leading area of innovation. Since 2001, innovation for automotive uses of hydrogen energy is greater than all other emerging end-use applications of hydrogen combined. Patenting in this area has grown at an average of 7% per year since 2001 and continues to increase.

The report also details how hydrogen energy-based start-ups are on the rise and suggests that their contribution to climate motivated hydrogen innovation will be vital. In 2021 alone, US$1 billion of venture capital was invested in early-stage clean energy hydrogen technologies. Meanwhile patenting is clearly a top priority for new companies in this field: more than 80% of later-stage investments were in hydrogen start-ups that had already filed a patent application before receiving the investments.

Due to the uneven trends across different hydrogen-energy technologies, the report calls for policy action to increase climate motivated hydrogen innovation in all areas. The pursuit of low emission technologies and climate friendly energy sources continues, and it looks like hydrogen technologies are shaping up to be promising contenders.

Barker Brettell has a dedicated energy sector group that can assist and advise you. To continue the conversation, please contact the author or your usual Barker Brettell attorney.