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Cleantech Innovations Continue to Thrive

Cleantech innovations continue to thrive, a sign that viability for eco-friendly energy technologies is continuing.  With increasing opportunity to innovate in this sector, many wonder which technologies areas are most likely to prevail.  A recent analysis of the cleantech patent landscape trends illustrates the hot cleantech categories, the up-and-coming technology areas that are gaining momentum, as well as patentable white space areas that may still exist, and in turn reveals where investments are being made and could be made in the near future.  For those looking to leverage the momentum, knowing the demographics of ownership and areas of highest corporate interest versus individual inventor are also useful in identifying where market opportunities yet exist.

An analysis of 2010 shows the following innovation trends across the following eleven leading cleantech technology categories: Solar, Hybrid Vehicles, Wind, Fuel Cells for Vehicles, Hydro/Wave/Tidal, Utility Metering, Geothermal, Smart Grid Technologies, Biomass/Biogas/Biofuel, CO2 Storage or Sequestration, and Nuclear Power.

Solar: With more than 30 percent of all patents granted, solar dominated the cleantech landscape with the most patents granted in 2010, 2009, and 2008.

Patentable white space may still exist, with approximately 17 percent of patents being granted with no initial rejection in view of prior technologies. The technology area having the greatest potential white space under this indicator is “photovoltaic solar cell construction and materials.”

The dominant technology area for which patent protection was most actively obtained in 2010, 2009, and 2008 (based upon number of claims granted) is “photovoltaic solar cell construction and materials,” which also led all other technologies in the entire cleantech landscape.

The up-and-coming technology area that saw the largest increase in patent protection from 2009 to 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) is “solar concentrating photovoltaic devices,” representing an area to watch for future technology development and investment.

Wind: With more than 21 percent of all patents granted, wind is the second most active technology in the cleantech landscape with the second most patents granted in 2010, 2009, and 2008.

Patentable white space may still exist (although down slightly from 2009), with almost one in four patents being granted with no initial rejection in view of prior technologies. The technology area having the greatest potential white space under this indicator is “wind turbine generator operational control.”

The up-and-coming technology areas that saw the largest increase in patent protection from 2009 to 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) is “maintenance/repair of wind turbine generators” and “vertical axis wind turbines,” representing areas to watch for future technology development and investment.

Hybrid Vehicles: With more than 18 percent of all patents granted, hybrid vehicles are the third-most active technology in the cleantech landscape with the third-most patents granted in 2010, 2009, and 2008.

Patentable white space may still exist, with almost one in three patents being granted with no initial rejection in view of prior technologies (a slight increase from 2009 and 2008).  The technology area having the greatest potential white space under this indicator is “control systems for hybrid vehicles.”

The technology area for which patent protection was most actively obtained in each of 2010, 2009, and 2008 (based upon number of claims granted) is “control systems for hybrid vehicles,” which was the second-highest among all technologies in the entire cleantech landscape.

The up-and-coming technology area that saw the largest increase in patent protection from 2009 to 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) is “supports and structures for hybrid vehicles,” representing an area to watch for future technology development and investment.

Hydro: The hydro/wave/tidal technologies in 2010 were the next most active field, accounting for almost six percent of patents in the cleantech landscape, which is an increase from 2009.

Patentable white space may still exist, with almost one in four patents being granted with no initial rejection in view of prior technologies (a slight decrease from 2009).  The technology area having the greatest potential white space under this indicator is “wave-driven hydropower generation.”

The technology area for which patent protection was most actively obtained in 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) is also “wave-driven hydropower generation.”

The up-and-coming technology area that saw the largest increase in patent protection from 2009 to 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) is “hydropower devices using variable density/buoyancy,” representing an area to watch for future technology development and investment.

Individual inventors accounted for more than half of the patents, indicating a substantial scope of new hydro developments that may be available for access by licensing or acquisition.

Utility Metering: The utility metering field in 2010 was the next most active field, accounting for slightly more than five percent of the patents in the cleantech landscape, a slight decrease from 2009.

Patentable white space still appears to exists, with almost one in three patents being granted with no initial rejection in view of prior technologies. The technology area having the greatest potential white space under this indicator is “automated meter reading and/or load control” and “structural components or containment for a metering device.”

The technology areas for which patent protection was most actively obtained in 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) also is “automated meter reading and/or load control” and “structural components or containment for a metering device.”

Biofuels: The biomass/biogas/biofuel field in 2010 was the next most active field, accounting for slightly more than five percent of patents in the cleantech landscape, which is a slight decrease from 2009.

Patentable white space may still exist, with almost one in four patents being granted with no initial rejection in view of prior technologies (an increase from both 2009 and 2008).  The technology areas having the greatest potential white space under this indicator are “system/process for making a biofuel” and “energy from or control of a biomass combustion device.”

The technology area for which patent protection was most actively obtained in both 2009 (based upon number of claims granted) is “system/process for making a biofuel.”

The up-and-coming technology area that saw the largest increase in patent protection from 2009 to 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) is landfill biogas collection, representing an area to watch for continued technology development and investment.

Individual inventors accounted for approximately 27 percent of the patents, indicating a fairly significant scope of new biofuel developments that may be available for access by licensing or acquisition.

Nuclear Power: The nuclear field in 2010 was the next most active field, accounting for about five percent of the patents in the cleantech landscape, a slight decrease from 2009.

The nuclear power technology area for which patent protection was most actively obtained in both 2010 and 2009 (based upon number of claims granted) is “enrichment and components for nuclear reactor fuel,” which was followed by “maintenance and/or cleaning of nuclear power plant fuel or components.”

The up-and-coming nuclear technology area that saw the largest increase in patent protection from 2009 to 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) is “nuclear containment structures,” representing an area to watch for continued technology development.

Fuel Cells for Vehicles: The fuel cells for vehicles field in 2010 was the next most active field, accounting for about three percent of patents in the cleantech landscape, which is a slight decrease from 2009.

The technology area for which patent protection was most actively obtained in 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) is “containment or structure for a fuel cell vehicle,” which represents a shift from the dominant category in both 2009 and 2008 of “power generation for a fuel cell vehicle.”

The up-and-coming technology area that saw the largest increase in patent protection from 2009 to 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) is also the “containment or structure for a fuel cell vehicle” category, representing an area to watch for future technology development and investment.

Smart Grid: The smart grid technologies field in 2010 was the next most active field, accounting for less than three percent of the patents in the cleantech landscape, a slight decrease from 2009.

The smart grid technologies area for which patent protection was most actively obtained in 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) is “systems for monitoring and controlling electric generators connected to a grid,” which is a repeat from 2009.

CO2 Storage: the CO2 storage field in 2010 accounted for the second fewest number of patents (slightly more than one percent) in the cleantech landscape, which is about the same as 2009.

The technology area for which patent protection was most actively obtained in 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) is “recovery of CO2 from combined gas industrial processes,” which is a repeat from 2009.

Geothermal: the geothermal field in 2010 accounted for the fewest number of patents in the cleantech landscape (about one percent), which remains the same as 2009.

The geothermal technology area for which patent protection was most actively obtained in 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) is “building heating using geothermal energy,” which represents a shift from “geothermal-based electric power generation,” which was the leading area in 2009.

The up-and-coming geothermal technology area that saw the largest increase in patent protection from 2009 to 2010 (based upon number of claims granted) is “heat extraction from geothermal reservoirs,” representing one area to watch for future technology development and investment.  However, the geothermal field still seems to be searching for a breakthrough development that is commercially viable.

Individual inventors accounted for more than half of the geothermal patents, indicating a fairly significant scope of new geothermal developments that may be available for access by licensing or acquisition.

From 2008 to 2010, the cleantech fields of solar, wind and hybrid vehicles have consistently led the cleantech patent landscape, far outpacing the other fields that were studied.  However, despite the advances in technology and the increasing number of patents granted, it appears that patentable white space still remains in the cleantech landscape, particularly in the areas related to photovoltaic cells and hybrid vehicle controls.  We also note that individual inventors continue to be particularly active in the cleantech landscape, at a rate that is more than twice that of individual inventor representation across all technology areas as a whole.  Finally, since the time to obtain a patent in the cleantech landscape remains fairly long (i.e. about 36 months on average), it may be advantageous to consider expedited examination options for particularly important innovations.

John M. Lazarus is a partner with Foley & Lardner LLP, chair of its Green Energy Technologies Practice and member of its Mechanical & Electromechanical Technologies Practice and Energy Industry Team. He counsels a wide variety of companies regarding patent protection strategies and patent portfolio coordination. The statistics contained within this article come from Foley’s recently released annual Cleantech Energy Patent Landscape Report, which provides an analysis of patent filings and investment activity. Mr. Lazarus can be reached at jlazarus@foley.com.

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