EPO and IEA dive deep into battery patent data

Weighing in at nearly 100 pages, the recent detailed report on innovation and patent trends in the battery industry both confirms some expected developments and provides interesting new insights. The report combines the prodigious database of patent information at the European Patent Office (EPO) with commercial insight from the International Energy Agency. The result is not only an exercise in data analysis but provides additional helpful industrial context and insight into the focus of some of the main players in the industry.

At the highest level, the report confirms what people with even a passing interest in the industry would probably predict - the increasing dominance of lithium-ion (Li-ion) cells as the basic technology in the battery sector making up 45% of all battery patent activity in 2018 (read more in our blog Lithium-ion batteries - powering the EVs of the future). However the report then drills deeper into this overall trend and investigates the different levels of innovation in the principal parts of the Li-ion cell, looking separately at cathodes (negative electrodes), anodes (positive electrodes), and electrolytes (read more in our blog Battery electrolytes - the latest latest graphene composites).

The patenting activity relating to the cathodes tells the story of development of new battery applications over the past 15 years. The technologies that initially dominated in the established consumer electronics industries were initially adapted for use when the first electric vehicles (EVs) hit the market. But as the different requirements of the vehicle batteries were realised, patent activity relating to new chemistries, such as the now-predominant nickel cobalt manganese oxide (“NMC”) cathodes, quickly outstripped the older technology. And the first glimmers of the possible successor to the NMC cathode might be starting to show the data with the growing interest in nickel cobalt aluminium oxide (“NCA”) chemistries.

In terms of sheer numbers of patent filings, activity in anode technologies has accelerated away from that in the cathode area in the last few years with around double the total numbers of new filings per year in both 2017 and 2018. The longstanding development of graphite anodes and more recent interest in silicon and silicon alloy chemistries can clearly be seen in the data (read more in our blog Increasing battery capacity - going Si high). Alongside which the rapid recent growth in patent applications for lithium alloy metal anodes indicates the possible direction of travel for future developments.

Alongside basic cell chemistry, a significant part of recent patent activity is in manufacturing methods and battery cell and pack architecture indicating drives towards product optimisation that might be expected as a field such as EVs becomes more established and manufacturing efficiency is starting to become paramount to allow mass production and lower costs (read more in our blog Batteries are no longer just passengers in electric vehicles).

The report also reveals the geographical origins of battery patent activity showing that nine of the top ten patent applicants are based in Asia with Japan and South Korea dominating. This is probably as expected given the large consumer electronics production based in Asia and the links of some companies such as Panasonic and LG with large EV manufacturers.

There is also a fascinating insight into the top individual applicant companies and the specific aspects of the battery systems that they are active in patenting. This highlights, for example, the relative strengths of companies such as Samsung in the development of battery cells and integration into equipment as compared to the more balanced interests across all aspects of the battery field of companies such as Hitachi and LG.

Overall while the report provides a deep insight into the current state of patent activity in the battery arena it also highlights recent trends and provides possible glimmers of insight about where the next generation of battery innovations might spring from. The report will therefore certainly be of interest to large, established companies in the battery sector but will also provide hope, and valuable commercial intelligence, to smaller innovators looking for the niches and opportunities that clearly still exist in a sector where the prize of large technological advances still remains.

Learn more and read the full EPO (98 page) report on the EPO website.