Report: UK risks losing hydrogen innovation race, with EU and Japan pulling ahead

Jointly conducted by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and European Patent Office, the study assessed patents filed for all technologies relating to hydrogen during the ten-year period, including electrolysers, hydrogen storage, hydrogen distribution and hydrogen-powered end-use technologies such as vehicles, vessels and heating technologies for buildings and industrial processes.

Patent filings are often used to understand the degree of innovation in a particular market, as they evidence research and development.

The results of the new study, published today (10 January), reveal that the EU and Japan collectively accounted for more than half of the international patent families (IPFs) filed within the ten-year period. 28% were filed in the EU and 24% in Japan. It bears noting that Japan’s GDP is equivalent to just one-third of the EU’s.

The US was another major player, with one in five IPFs assessed filed in this market. For comparison, neighboring Canada accounted for just 2% of the patents filed. Also lagging at the bottom of the table in terms of total IPFs filed are China (2%), the UK (3%) and the Netherlands (3%). The strongest European markets, meanwhile, include Germany and France.

The report predicts that China and South Korea could yet dramatically increase their share of patents, with their newer long-term climate commitments in mind and with their strong rates of patent growth through to 2020. In 2020, China recorded 15.2% more IPF filings on hydrogen than in 2011. The increase was 12.2% in South Korea within the same timeframe.

Technology breakdown

Hydrogen production technologies accounted for the largest number of hydrogen patents over the period assessed. This reflects the growing desire from nations to move away from current hydrogen production systems which are heavily reliant on fossil fuels – while this hydrogen produces no greenhouse gas emissions at the point of combustion, lifecycle emissions mean it cannot credibly be classed as a low-carbon solution. Nations have committed to bringing low-carbon hydrogen generation to price parity with ‘grey’ fossil fuelled productions this decade.

Low-emissions innovations generated more than double the number of international patents across all segments of the hydrogen value chain than established technologies.

Technologies motivated by climate concerns accounted for nearly 80% of all patents related to hydrogen production in 2020. Electrolysers were the primary contributor, the report confirms. These systems enable water to be split, producing hydrogen, using methods powered entirely by electricity. The electricity can be procured from renewable or nuclear sources to cut life-cycle emissions. Some nations, including the UK, now have time-bound targets for scaling hydrogen production using electrolysers served by renewable electricity.

Nonetheless, the report paints a picture of slower innovation in the name of decarbonising technologies which could use hydrogen as a fuel, such as vehicles, vessels and heating systems.

The report’s authors have stated that patenting in the automotive sector remains the focus for innovation, with “similar momentum not yet visible in other end-use applications, despite concerted policy and media attention in recent years” on hydrogen for long-distance road transport, rail, shipping, aviation and heating – especially heat for industrial processes.

Leading the automotive patenting drive is Japan, home to corporates such as Toyota, Honda, Panasonic and Mitsubishi. Japan accounted for 39% of the automotive hydrogen IPFs assessed in the report.

The report does foresee an increase in momentum on hydrogen innovation for aviation in the US and shipping across Europe. Aviation and shipping are also the two hydrogen end-uses where the most IPFs were filed in the UK in the period studied.

Also noted is a “bright spot” in the uptick of hydrogen heating technologies for the steel production industry. The report suggests that this surge is likely to continue in the future as nations flesh out their climate mitigation pledges made through the UN.

Summarising these findings, IEA executive director Fatih Birol said: “This study shows that innovators are responding to the need for competitive hydrogen supply chains, but also identifies areas – particularly among end-users – where more effort is required. We will continue to help governments spur innovation for secure, resilient and sustainable clean energy technologies.”

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