In March 2020 the UK Government announced £36.7 million in funding for projects aimed at designing and developing cleaner and greener transport technology. £30 million of the fund will create four new regional centres of excellence based in Newport, Nottingham, Strathclyde and Sunderland with a focus on electric aircraft, ships and road vehicles, among other topics. This announcement came alongside another UK Government announcement that consultation was opening on the use of lower carbon fuel technology to reduce the environmental impact of the transition from traditional combustion engine transport to electric methods.
This is the latest piece in the UK Government’s strategy to make the UK a world leader in electric transport and battery technology. In recent years, the UK Government has moved to accelerate electric vehicle and battery R&D via the Industrial Strategy initiatives, Innovate UK and organisations such as the Faraday Institution.
In recent years, the push for electric vehicles has seen a diverse range of vehicles adapted to use electric propulsion. In addition to cars, electric and battery technologies have found their way into marine propulsion systems and passenger aircraft. It should not be forgotten that many train systems have also operated on overhead wire distributed electrical systems for some time. AA Thornton have attended several of the leading electric vehicle and CAV events in the UK in recent years including Cenex-LCV and the Battery Tech Expo and have observed the gradual encroachment of battery technology into increasing numbers of niche vehicles including tractors, refuse trucks, cement mixers and others.
The new Government funding will seek to address the remaining challenges that prevent more widespread commercial adoption of electric and battery technology. For example, some practical challenges remain in terms of technical limitations. Aircraft are generally considered to be cost-effective for long distance travel and yet commercially available batteries limit the range of current electric aircraft to a few hundred kilometres at best. Similar technical considerations exist for boats and ships where the energy required to propel a large mass over oceans necessitates unacceptably large battery systems or alternative means of energy generation. Other challenges exist in the scaling up of new developments in battery technology and system designs into vehicles that are cost-effective for the industry and general public.
The large number of companies innovating in the field of electric vehicles means that many of the remaining obstacles to widespread adoption should be ultimately overcome. However, the pace of development spurred on by regular Government funding presents a risk that intellectual property may be missed, or addressed too late in a project to allow suitable protection to be obtained. Researchers in this field should remember that every time a technical problem is solved, a challenge overcome, or an issue addressed, there is the possibility that patentable intellectual property has been created. Regular review of projects, including IP audits available to SMEs may assist in the identification and capture of commercially beneficial IP. Many researchers and developers may also be unaware that their invention is patentable. Patent protection can extend not only to battery materials or electrical configurations but also to methods of battery management, battery operational systems and even to the integration of AI into electrical vehicles.
The past 10 years have seen annual patent filings for batteries overtake annual patent filings for combustion energy technology. The past 5 years have seen the first sustained decrease in the number of patents filed for combustion engine technology while the number of battery patent filings continues to increase at a rate of at least 10 to 15% a year. The automotive industry’s investment in battery IP demonstrates the vast sums of money being spent on worldwide R&D while also highlighting the industry’s collective prediction that batteries and electricity will win out over the combustion engine. However, do these trends and analyses tell the entire story?
Some industry analysts predict that transport and propulsion systems will diversify in a post-combustion engine world. Some of the challenges presented by electric technologies can be overcome by the use of alternative green propulsion. Although patent filings for hydrogen fuel cell technology are modest compared to both batteries and combustion engines, gradual rollout of hydrogen powered trains continues in many countries across Europe. Various hydrogen powered ships are also in development.
Dr Jeff Allan, the Managing Director of Jeff Vehicles Ltd has been involved in the development of the UK’s first hydrogen train in association with Porterbrook and the University of Birmingham. Dr Allan commented that “Hydrogen fuel cells allow trains to operate over much longer range than batteries permit. While electrification is the most efficient way of powering trains, hydrogen seems the best option for eliminating diesel trains where electrification cannot be justified”.
Despite some obvious advantages, the large scale rollout of hydrogen fuel systems is hindered by issues of infrastructure and compatibility. However, some companies such as Fuel Cell Systems Ltd (FCSL) are already providing commercial solutions to address these issues. FCSL found initial commercial success in the provision of small remote-power modules for CCTV towers and environmental monitoring stations and have adapted this know-how into transport and propulsion. Beth Dawson, Major Projects Manager at FCSL says “these units pay back commercially on a whole-of-life basis – the extended autonomous runtime means fewer site visits to the equipment. And they’re quiet and low emission too!”. Dawson continues “Fuel cell systems, being largely passive systems with hardly any moving parts, tend to work exactly as you’d expect. The issues we encounter as an integrator are usually about the fuel”. FCSL’s more recent projects have solved these exact integration problems and have provided a hydrogen dispensing fuelling truck, support for the Hyundai Nexo, and fuelling solutions for the Porterbrook hydrogen train mentioned above. More recently, FCSL have started building a second hydrogen dispensing fuelling truck for the UK’s first hydrogen plane within the HyFlyer project led by ZeroAvia Continued provision of practical and commercially viable systems such as these should allow hydrogen fuels cells to establish their niche in the years to come.
In reality, a mixture of electric technology, hydrogen power and other alternatives such as ‘clean’ synthetic fuel will serve to solve our future transport problems in different ways for different applications. In this rapidly developing and crowded commercial space, intellectual property will prove increasingly valuable for companies looking to carve out, or retain, their market share in the sector.
If you would like further detail on any of the above, or would like to discuss developments in the intellectual property or automotive world, then please do not hesitate to contact one of our experienced attorneys in the Automotive and Aerospace sector.