Patenting Clean Energy Technology

Big Opportunities for Patenting Clean Energy Technology

Thanks to Houston Brown for this great guest post on clean energy innovation.  The post is particularly timely in view of the American Chemical Society’s upcoming conference on Chemistry & Materials for Energy.  The conference will be held from March 16-20, 2014 in Dallas, Texas.

IP professionals often analyze patent-related activities in aggregate by defining the ‘patent landscape’ for a technology or field of study. The landscape analogy provokes images ranging from barren deserts to dense forests, and variances in patenting activity can be just as wide. The current landscape for clean-energy technology is best related to a freshly ploughed farmer’s field – much care has been taken to ensure the conditions for growth are ideal, and the time to plant is now.

The U.S. Department of Energy Recognizes the Importance of Clean Energy Technology

There is no mistaking how important clean energy technologies are to the US Department of Energy. The primary goal of their latest strategic plan is to “Catalyze the timely, material, and efficient transformation of the nation’s energy system and secure U.S. leadership in clean energy technologies”.1 To this end the DOE has contributed more than $6.8 billion towards renewable energy development between 2003 and 2012,2 of which about $950 million has been directed towards university-based R&D. While academic scientists across all six renewable energy platforms (solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, hydro, biomass) have benefited from the funding, the budget allocations have been far from equal. In 2004 more than 75% of clean energy R&D dollars were directed towards projects related to solar, bio energy, and hydrogen/fuel cells.3

So, what do cadmium telluride photovoltaics, nano-structured biomass pyrolysis catalysts, and solid oxide fuel cells, have in common? They are all the result of innovations at the interface between chemistry and materials science. Chemistry and materials science are driving the transformation of the nation’s energy system.  The DOE appears to appreciate this contribution.

Opportunities for Chemical Contributions to Clean Energy Technology

While substantial funding has been in place for decades, the development of clean energy technologies from chemistry and materials has been slow. Major advances towards understanding fundamental processes have been prerequisites for the development of commercializable technologies. Fortunately, the state-of-the-art for many applications has advanced to the point that ideas that once seemed impossibilities are being reduced to practice.  The inventive steps that underlie the progress in these areas are not only highly desirable; they are often patentable.

Clean Energy Startups Recognize the Importance of Patenting Clean Energy Technology

Clean energy startups around the country have begun leveraging strong chemistry-based patent portfolios to gain access to an abundance of government-incentivized financial support. The trend is reflected in patent activity at the USPTO, where applications for solar, bioenergy, and hydrogen fuel cell technologies have grown steadily since the early 2000’s.4 While the increase in activity is significant the landscapes remain largely under developed.4 This finding manifests frequently in prior art citation patterns from the USPTO database, where patent applications in these fields consistently turn to peer-reviewed journal articles to describe the prior art, presumably due to a dearth of related patents.

Academic scientists that are inventing in these key areas should not delay in capitalizing on this opportunity. Working with an expert IP professional during the process of reducing an invention to practice enables scientists to draft patent claims covering the most desirable parts of the patent landscape. The clean energy patent landscape is primed for growth, now is the time for chemists and materials scientists to stake their claim.


US Department of Energy Strategic Plan, May 2011, DOE/CF-0067. Available at:

Renewable Energy R&D Funding History: A Comparison with Funding for Nuclear Energy, Fossil Energy, and Energy Efficiency R&D, CRS Report for Congress, March 7-5700, RS22858. Available at:

Patents and Clean Energy: Bridging the Gap Between Evidence and Policy – Final Report, United Nations Environment Programme. Available at:

Patent-based Technology Analysis Report: Alternative Energy Technology, World Intellectual Property Organization. Available at:

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