First developed in 1799 by the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, battery technology can hardly be said to be new. Fast-forward two centuries, however, and batteries are front-and-centre of the renewable energy revolution: in November 2019 UBS estimated that the global market for energy storage will reach US$462 billion by 2030.
This is hardly surprising when we consider the arsenal of modern battery-powered appliances at our fingertips and the ever-increasing demand for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage. Indeed, our increasing reliance on battery technology has seen this old invention continue to develop at rapid pace.
Patent filings provide a key insight into future technologies and a recent review by the EPO presents three highlights concerning battery innovation.
1. Rapid rise in patenting activity
More than 7,000 international patent families relating to electricity storage were published in 2018, up from 1,029 in 2000. Since 2005 this represents an annual growth rate of 14%, compared to just 3.5% on average across all technology areas. The vast majority of these have been in electrochemical inventions (i.e. batteries), accounting for 88% of all patenting activity in this area.
Leading the charge are lithium-ion ("Li-ion") batteries. Li-ion batteries possess a higher power capacity and charge density than batteries made of other materials. It is Li-ion batteries that have made the mass-manufacturing of electric vehicles possible, and led to their developers being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019.
2. Japan and the Republic of Korea lead the charge
Japan and the Republic of Korea are, by far, the lead runners in the global battery technology race. Of the top ten global applicants, seven are Japanese (spearheaded by Panasonic and Toyota) and two are Korean (Samsung and LG Electronics). The only non-Asian company to feature is the German company Bosch. From 2014 to 2018, Japan alone was home to 41% of all Li-ion patenting activity. Interestingly, Samsung's growth has targeted portable electronics, whereas the majority of other patent filings in this area have focused on automotive applications.
3. Cathode Chemistry is key
Every battery, whether one developed today or the 1799 original, is composed of two electrodes - an anode and a cathode - dipped in electrolyte (a conductive solution) with a separator that controls the flow of electric charge. The first rechargeable Li-ion battery patent arose when Stanley Whittingham (Nobel prize winner, working at oil giant Exxon at the time) realised lithium metal could be used as an anode. It was later discovered that a graphite anode was more effective, but the name Li-ion remains due the movement of lithium ions.
Today, the most innovative breakthroughs are focused on Li-ion battery cathodes. The recent focus has been on NMC cathodes – one third nickel, one third manganese and one third cobalt. However, recent filings suggest that NCA (lithium nickel cobalt aluminium oxide) may displace NMC in the spotlight. The reason is the shift in desired criteria towards improving specific energy (energy per unit mass), durability, power output, charge / discharge speed and recyclability.
A note on disputes
The EPO statistics suggest that the patent landscape for batteries is set to become increasingly crowded. Moreover, the dividing line between car manufacturers and technology providers is becoming increasingly blurred. Examples include Elon Musk's famous battery bet to build South Australia the world's largest lithium-ion mega-battery capable of powering 30,000 homes for eight hours in 100 days (it required just 60) or Porsche and Audi forming Ionity, aiming to develop a pan-European vehicle charging network.
Similarities can therefore be made between the automotive sector and the smartphone sector, and it would not be surprising to see a substantial rise in licensing activity and disputes.
One company that has already been particularly active asserting its patent portfolio is Varta AG, renowned for its manufacture of automotive batteries.
However, it is not this IP that the Germany company is so fiercely protecting. At the end of last year, Varta sued Samsung and a number of its retailers in Germany, asserting patent infringement relating to its patented 'button batteries' – EP 2 394 324 – a rechargeable lithium-ion battery used in Galaxy Buds earphones. Further proceedings were issued in the US earlier this year.
The actions resulted in a global settlement in August. Varta now apparently wish to refine and further develop their relationship with Samsung and other manufacturers, particularly those that manufacture smart watches and fitness trackers.
These matters exemplified the rather unusual case of a vendor commencing proceedings against one of its own customers, so it will be interesting to see how this impacts future business relations, and whether we see other innovative companies take the same approach.
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