Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Patent Analysis Highlights Big Changes in Last Five Years

A report covering the analysis of over 40,000 patents granted in the last five years in the field of energy storage technologies for electric vehicles shows that two Japanese players - Panasonic and Toyota - now dominate the scene closely followed by two Korean firms, Samsung SDI and LG Chemical.

PatAnalyse a Cambridge, UK based IP analysis company looked at patents covering lithium batteries, supercapacitors, and battery management systems. The report "Advanced Energy Storage Technologies: Patent Trends and Company Positioning" was co-authored by IDTechEx, a global analysis and market intelligence company.

Lithium-ion battery technologies are starting to replace the older and lower energy density Lead Acid and Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries in electric vehicles. The high energy Lithium-ion cells, however, are more vulnerable to abuse and need more support from electronic battery management systems to provide protection and ensure long life. The battery and on-board battery management system have become an important product differentiators just like the internal combustion engine in contemporary cars.

As a rule it takes at least five years from invention to the first product on the market, so to highlight `hidden' R&D efforts which have not yet materialised as new products, the study focussed on patents with a priority date from 2005.

While Japanese and Korean multinationals dominate the patent landscape, second tier players are more international with Japanese companies like Sony, Hitachi, Denso, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Toshiba, and Honda joined by Ford, General Motors, Robert Bosch and, not surprisingly, by the Chinese BYD.

US activity seems dominated by government sponsored research which is reflected in the strong position of US government labs and universities

Looking at trends in patenting over the last five years it is evident that much of the growth comes from European and US players waking up to the challenge.

Caption: Trend in patenting advanced energy storage over the most recent years for which statistically meaningful data are available. Source: Source PatAnalyse/IDTechEx report "Advanced Energy Storage Technologies: Patent Trends and Company Positioning"

Korean companies are substantially outnumbered by US firms when all small players are taken into account. A more sophisticated analysis of the trends shows that Korean firms are reducing their relative contribution to energy storage patenting while Europe and China have been substantially increasing their contributions.

Looking specifically at lithium traction battery development, while Toyota is a bold new entrant to this area, Panasonic has been steadily active for some time. Recently LG Chemical has been patenting less and this seems to reflect a reduced R&D spend for the development of the new generation of lithium traction batteries. It could be that LG Chemical is shifting its financial resources from R&D to manufacturing which should pay off in a short term but could be quite a risky strategy in the long term.

Caption: Toyota lithium-ion traction battery patent filings by year. Source PatAnalyse/IDTechEx report "Advanced Energy Storage Technologies: Patent Trends and Company Positioning"

A comparison of Toyota's and Panasonic's lithium traction battery patents shows that while Toyota is backing the use of electrode nanotechnology for reducing the charging time and improving lifetime, Panasonic is focusing more on separator technology and cathode chemistry.

Companies big and small are already reaping the benefit of this novel kind of business intelligence. Local technology strategy company, Technologia, was one of the first customers. Mick McLean, Managing Director explained: "Patent landscaping is a tool increasingly used by big corporations to inform product development and technology strategies. By analysing the vast amount of data in databases of patents, multinationals can gain significant competitive advantages. But most current methods are skill and labour intensive and costs exclude the small players."

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