Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements on Earth and is a very versatile source of energy with potential applications for automobile, transportation and large-scale industrial applications such as steel and ammonia production. When compared with other traditional fossil fuels, byproducts from burning hydrogen cause no pollution. Hydrogen technology appears to be the most promising way to significantly reduce emissions which is what prompted us to take a closer look at innovation in this area.
Even though Hydrogen has been known as a promising green fuel for more than two decades, the Hydrogen economy has had its challenges. The biggest of which lies in finding green sources of hydrogen. Currently, over 95% of all hydrogen is produced from non-green sources mainly steam methane reformation that requires a heat source and produces carbon dioxide as a by-product. In order for Hydrogen to be used as a transport fuel it must be compressed at high pressure.
Hydrogen-powered vehicles have been in the news more recently but the technology has been evolving for many years and decades. Published patent literature and scientific literature suggests that hydrogen powered automotive technologies have been the subject of significant research and development (R&D) activity.
Analyzing patents can be useful for tracking technical developments and providing insights on technology developments. For example, patent data can indicate key areas of commercially important R&D and confirm the standing of various countries in the world. With most new technologies, early patent filings reflect technology improvements and business information. Patents are also one of the ways in which technology and commercialization trends can be reasonably predicted. This article reviews the technology development of hydrogen stations and provides researchers with information on hydrogen station patent technology development. The analysis is focused on patents from countries and key companies developing hydrogen related technologies and which are traditionally the most productive and competitive in terms of patenting activity and we look at where Australia stands on a global level. We also look at some of the major areas of patenting activity for hydrogen technologies. An explanation of our search methodology can be found here: The Hydrogen Tech Patent Landscape – Search Approach (thepatentsearcher.com).
In the coming months we will also share an Australia specific analysis and findings.
Worldwide Patent Filings
Figures 1 and 2 provide information on patenting activity in the area of hydrogen related technologies on a country wide basis. We have classified countries under two tiers based on the volume of patent filings.
Majority of the patenting activity from 1 January 2011 for hydrogen-based technologies has been in China, Japan, South Korea, USA and Germany and these countries have been classified under Tier 1 (shown in Figure 1). The patent data also confirms that the USA and Japan were first to enter the fray as far as filing patents on new hydrogen technology. However, later entrants like China and South Korea have stepped up their patent filing activity in the last ten years.
Some of the other notable countries making significant strides in patenting activity include France, Taiwan, Russia and the United Kingdom. We have classified these countries among some other countries under Tier 2. Australia has also been included under Tier 2 with 157 patent families originating out of Australia. By way of comparison, countries like China, Japan and Korea have filed well over 10,000 patent families.
TOP GLOBAL FILERS OF PATENT APPLICATIONS
Companies around the world are known to place significant importance on their intellectual property portfolio in order to be global leaders on key hydrogen technologies. Figure 3 shows a list of the top 20 patent applicants and their country of origin. Toyota, Hyundai, Honda and Panasonic are the largest filers of patent applications by volume. Figures 4A to 4C show patent applicants by country under Tiers 1, 2 and 3. Overall, Japanese companies have been dominating the patenting landscape for hydrogen related technologies for the last ten to fifteen years but a large number of Chinese companies have been filing patent applications and China has emerged as the top filing country for hydrogen related technologies. Korean and German companies have also been very active in this area. Interestingly, one of the top 20 filers (General Motors) is an American corporation while nine of the top twenty applicants are Japanese entities. Overall, there is a clear trend which confirms high levels of patenting activity among companies that have a vested interest in hydrogen powered mobility especially automobiles.
MAIN TECHNOLOGICAL AREAS OF PATENTING ACTIVITY
Three main areas of innovation were identified in our patent analysis. These areas include:
1. Fuel Cells
2. Hydrogen Storage
3. Hydrogen Processing
Fuel Cell technology seems to have the highest level of patenting activity for hydrogen related patents. The fuel cell is not a modern technology. The earliest reports for fuel cells date back to a letter published in the December 1838 edition of The London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. In that letter, Welsh judge and scientist William Grove reported the development of the first crude fuel cell.
Modern fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity through electrochemical processes. The electrochemical method of combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water as the only by-product is much more efficient than burning of hydrogen and oxygen.
In our analysis, we sorted the full results set to only show results that included IPC classifications related to fuel cells as outlined in table 1 above to perform a detailed search of patents that relate to fuel cells. Figure 5 shows that the Japanese companies Toyota, Honda and Nissan are the three strongest fuel-cell related patent owners measured by patent family size among the top five filers. Eleven companies in the top twenty are Japanese, four are from South Korea and two are from the United States, which shows a very strong Asian dominance in the field of fuel cells as evident from Figures 6A and 6B.
Hydrogen is highly explosive, lacks smell, has low volumetric energy density and must be compressed at a high pressure for transportation. Storage and transport of hydrogen presents one of the most important challenges for transitioning to a viable hydrogen economy. Hydrogen storage approaches have involved compressed hydrogen gas tanks, liquid hydrogen tanks, cryogenic compressed hydrogen, metal hydrides, high-surface-area adsorbents, and novel hydrogen storage materials.
Storage systems involving a gas or liquid or storage in metal hydrides or high-surface-area adsorbents are classified as “reversible” on-board hydrogen storage systems because hydrogen regeneration or refill can take place on-board the vehicle.
Other methods that rely on a chemical reaction to produce hydrogen are generally less convenient because hydrogen regeneration is not possible on-board the vehicle; and thus, these spent materials must be removed from the vehicle and regenerated off-board.
Once again, Figure 7 confirms that automotive companies have been actively pursuing patent applications for new hydrogen storage technologies. Among the top five companies for hydrogen storage patent families, three are Japanese automotive companies and two are German corporations. Once again, six of the top twenty applicants are Japanese companies and the landscape is dominated by other Asian jurisdictions like South Korea and China followed by Germany and the USA. Figures 8A and 8B show a country-wise breakdown of applicant countries filing patents related to hydrogen storage technologies.
Production of green hydrogen is another very important area of technology development. For hydrogen to succeed as an alternative fuel source, the hydrogen must be produced in environmentally friendly ways. Currently, most hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, most commonly via steam methane reforming (SMR), which is energy intensive because the chemical reaction of methane to carbon monoxide and hydrogen is strongly endothermic. Hydrogen produced by steam reforming is generally referred to as “grey hydrogen” because of its environmental impact. Grey hydrogen production requires both energy and produces carbon emissions (carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide).
“Blue hydrogen”, like “grey hydrogen”, is produced by steam methane reformation. However, the carbon dioxide is captured and stored and therefore prevented from being released into the atmosphere.
“Green hydrogen” is produced by electrolysis of water using renewable energy and is therefore the cleanest way of producing hydrogen for use as a clean fuel. As hydrogen can be stored, distributed, and used away from the site of production, “green hydrogen” holds a lot of promise for use as a clean fuel.
Unlike the two other areas of hydrogen technology, Japan does not seem to be dominant among the top twenty patent applicants for hydrogen production related technologies. Eight of the top twenty applicants are Chinese companies or institutions as shown in Figure 9. Japanese and Korean companies make up most of the remaining places among the top twenty applicants.
Both reversible and non-reversible hydrogen storage technologies have been included in the analysis. Once again, the above graphs confirm that automotive companies have been actively pursuing patent applications for new hydrogen storage technologies. Among the top five companies for hydrogen storage patent families, three are Japanese automotive companies and two are German corporations. Once again, six of the top twenty applicants are Japanese companies and the landscape is dominated by other Asian jurisdictions like South Korea and China followed by Germany and the USA. China in particular dominates the patent landscape for hydrogen production related patents and Figure 10 shows a breakdown of China’s 21,420 patent families related to hydrogen processing. For ease of understanding, Figure 11A does not show China’s patent filings which are almost three times as much as Japan’s patent filings for hydrogen production related technologies.
Given that hydrogen production is a very broad area of technology, the graphs shown in Figures 11A to 11C show a further breakdown of hydrogen processing related technologies with hydrogen production being the dominant area of innovation within hydrogen processing related patents.
Figures 12A and 12B show the breakdown in hydrogen production related technologies for China and Australia. Even though the volume of patent filings between China and Australia is not comparable, with China filing 200 times the number of hydrogen processing related patents compared to Australia, it is notable that a large proportion of Australian originating patents relate to hydrogen production.
Hydrogen technology has been the subject of great progress in recent years. The patent analysis presented in our article provides meaningful insights for companies and research institutes for setting technology development and commercial targets. Traditionally, USA and European countries have been leaders in developing newer technologies. However, the results from the patent landscape of hydrogen related technologies indicate that Japan, China and Korea are leading countries as far as developing new hydrogen technologies is concerned. While USA and Europe based companies continue to hold an important position among the top patent filing applicants, Asian countries will play a key role in development and commercialization of hydrogen-based technologies.
As we move toward reaching zero emission goals, keeping track of patent filing activity can indicate which countries and which companies within those countries are making progress towards harnessing this tradable energy commodity.