Energy Transition

Which countries are leading the way with hydrogen?

A hydrogen pump is displayed at the National Hydrogen Association's (NHA) annual convention in Long Beach, California.

Europe and Japan have the most patent filings for hydrogen. Image: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Ian Shine
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Accelerating Clean Hydrogen

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  • Europe and Japan are leading the world in terms of patent filings related to hydrogen, according to a new report.
  • Technologies related to producing hydrogen accounted for the largest number of hydrogen patents in 2011-2020.
  • The automotive sector was the area of transport with the biggest jump in hydrogen-related patent filings.
  • But the trends in patent filings are uneven, with a surge in interest around hydrogen production not yet being met by advances around its potential uses.

Hydrogen – is there anything it might not be able to do? It could power cars, it could help produce steel, it could even heat our homes, people say. But is all this talk just a lot of hot air, or is the hydrogen buzz actually translating into breakthroughs?

One of the best ways to measure innovation is through patent filings, and that is what a first-of-its-kind report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and European Patents Office (EPO) does. It takes global patent filing data to show what kinds of hydrogen developments are happening fastest, as well as where the world’s hydrogen hotspots are.

Europe and Japan are leading the pack in terms of patent numbers, closely followed by the US, says Hydrogen Patents for a Clean Energy Future. The EU filed 28% of all international patent families (IPFs) in hydrogen technologies in 2011-2020, with Japan on 24% and the US on 20%.

Where is hydrogen innovation happening the fastest?
Where is hydrogen innovation happening the fastest? Image: Hydrogen Patents for a Clean Energy Future

However, the US was the only region where IPF numbers fell compared with the previous decade. The fastest growth was in China at 15.2%, and in South Korea at 12.2%.

The EU is being led by three main clusters – in Munich and the Ruhr area in Germany, and in the French capital of Paris. In the Ruhr area, steel production company Thyssenkrupp is the top applicant for hydrogen-linked patents. It is eyeing 2024 as the date to start up its first industrial-scale plant using direct-reduced iron production – a method of making steel that creates around a quarter of the carbon emissions of traditional blast furnaces.

Hydrogen production patents

Technologies related to producing hydrogen accounted for the largest number of hydrogen patents in 2011-2020. The main trend has been a significant shift towards low-emission production methods.

“Technologies motivated by climate concerns generated nearly 80% of IPFs related to hydrogen production in 2020,” the report says. “Their growth was chiefly driven by a swift rise in innovation in electrolysis.”

Europe and Japan are leading the pack in terms of hydrogen patent numbers, closely followed by the US,
Europe and Japan are leading the pack in terms of hydrogen patent numbers, closely followed by the US, Image: IEA

Electrolysis is the process of running an electrical current through water to split it into hydrogen and oxygen. It is a carbon-free production process, whereas many conventional hydrogen production methods involve using fossil fuels such as coal and gas to separate hydrogen from carbon atoms in methane.

There is expected to be a 65-fold increase in the market size for electrolyzers this decade, as countries around the world look to slash their carbon emissions from areas including power generation.

Transport

The automotive sector was the area of transport with the biggest jump in hydrogen-related patent filings.

The main focus is creating hydrogen fuel cells capable of propelling vehicles forwards. Japanese and South Korean automotive companies are dominating this area, benefiting from apparent synergies with their work on electrolyzer technology. At the same time, innovation in automotive fuel cells is helping with developments in electrolysis, as certain fuel cells can be used in reverse for electrolysis.

The automotive sector was the area of transport with the biggest jump in hydrogen-related patent filings.
The automotive sector had the biggest jump in hydrogen-related patent filings. Image: Hydrogen Patents for a Clean Energy Future

There has also been an uptick in exploration of hydrogen’s use in powering drones and unmanned aircraft. This area made up two-thirds of patent filings related to aviation fuel cells in 2011-2020.

Patent data shows hydrogen fuel cells are being favoured as a development option over hydrogen internal combustion engines, with patent filings for the latter decreasing over the past decade. UK-US start-up ZeroAvia recently completed a test flight of an aircraft partially powered by hydrogen fuel cells, and the firm’s founder said the technology could be available for commercial use in a couple of years.

But hydrogen turbines may be needed for longer-distance flights, as they offer more power. Hydrogen turbines feature in Airbus’ designs for what it hopes will be the world's first zero-emission commercial aircraft. It could hit the skies in 2035.

There has been much less activity around the use of fuel cells in railways and shipping, but Tokyo is driving rail-focused patents while Seoul is emerging as a centre for hydrogen applications in shipping, the report says.

East Japan Railway is testing a hydrogen-powered train, and is eyeing commercial operations by 2030. Meanwhile, Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering is trialling the use of hydrogen fuel cells on ships and could launch them by the end of 2025.

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Storage and distribution

It may not be as exciting as hydrogen-powered drones, but if there’s more hydrogen in the world, there will also need to be more ways to store it and move it around.

There’s been a major rise in the number of patents related to storing pure hydrogen, with filings rising by an average of 13% every year between 2001 and 2020.

And developments are emerging in storing hydrogen by turning it into a liquid, but this is a technically complex process that involves cooling the gas to below -250°C. Changing the form of hydrogen in this way can also lead to energy losses, and there are problems to be solved around the durability, cost and ability to scale up such systems, the report says.

The EU is leading the way in hydrogen storage, with half of published IPFs in liquid storage and 38% of those related to storing hydrogen as a gas.

The US accounted for 26% of patenting activities related to distribution networks and equipment, but had a low share of IPFs for storage technologies.

Uneven trends

While the overall direction of travel on hydrogen technologies is positive, the trends in patent filings are uneven, the IEA and EPO report says.

It highlights a risk of “a mismatch in supply and demand technologies”, saying that the surge in patent filings around hydrogen production needs to be met with advances around the uses of hydrogen.

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It says governments need to take action in this area, given their key role in incentivizing the private sector to invest in such areas. “There are around 50 targets, mandates and policy incentives in place today that directly support hydrogen, with the majority focused on transport,” the IEA says.

The patent report calls for governments to send signals to companies in the iron, steel and shipping sectors about the need to transition to cleaner fuels, in order to encourage developments.

World Economic Forum report The Net-Zero Industry Tracker also says that there is need for “decisive policy action to incentivize steel players into low-emission production”. This is because it will be extremely expensive to recalibrate the coal-reliant industry to switch to producing green steel made using hydrogen, with costs expected to be 25-50% higher.

Yet the cost of not pushing the world towards wider use of hydrogen is likely to be far greater than the cost of maintaining the status quo. As the IEA and EPO report points out: “Hydrogen produced from low-emissions sources has the potential to reduce reliance on fossil fuels in applications where few other alternatives exist.”

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