Key Findings: Hydrogen Fuel Cells in Transportation

This WIPO Patent Landscape Report provides early observations on patenting activity in the field of hydrogen fuel cells in transportation.

Hydrogen fuel cells technologies

A third wave of patent filing is gaining momentum

There has been a strong increase in patent filings since 2016, for fuel cell technologies in general. The first small wave of patent filings occurred in the mid-1980s, followed by a second, large wave around 2005, with a third wave starting around 2016. Japanese inventors contributed heavily to the major surge (second wave) in patent filings related to fuel cells (2000–2005) and Chinese inventors to the third wave (2016–2020).

Fuel cells have achieved a high degree of technological maturity, with polymer electrolyte membrane fuels leading in patent filings

There are several types of fuel cells, with polymer electrolyte (or proton exchange) membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) leading in the patent dataset and appearing to be the most promising.
Inventors based in Japan have the highest contribution to all technologies, with the highest participation in the areas of PEMFCs and solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs). It is worth noting that Chinese inventors have the highest contribution to filings related to alkaline membrane and fuel cell recycling.

Fuel cell technologies in transportation

Patent filing activity is concentrated in just five jurisdictions which are also the biggest inventor locations

Looking specifically at fuel cell patents in the transportation sector, the patent search identified 52,433 patent filings in the field of fuel cells that describe transportation applications, accounting for one-quarter of patent filings related to fuel cells in general. In all, 61% (32,018 patent families) of these included at least one granted patent. Half of this patent dataset (26,449 patent families and utility models) were considered active at the time of the analysis in March 2022. A high number of fuel cell patents describe a specific use in transportation and this number is growing appreciably, thus highlighting the increasing importance of this particular market sector.
Inventions related to fuel cells in transportation were filed for patent protection across 88 patent offices, with active patents present in 80 jurisdictions. While this suggests a wide spread of activity globally, a strong concentration of patents was located in just five jurisdictions. We found that 96% of the patent families identified included at least one patent application filed either in Japan, the United States of America (US), China, the Republic of Korea, Germany, or at the European Patent Office (EP filings) or the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) (administering the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) and representing PCT filings). This suggests that the biggest production sites are striving to establish themselves in the five main industry regions, with markets starting locally before then spreading worldwide. The widespread of activity also seems to signal a relatively easy access to the technology in general.

Big players within the business have made a significant contribution to the patent landscape

The top 30 players in fuel cells in transportation account for 40% of the patent dataset (21,152 of 52,433 patent families). This rather high concentration is similar to the what was observed in electric vehicles (top 30 players accounting for 43% of the dataset), and indicates the level of investment by market players in the field. Indeed, several of these players, namely, Toyota, Hyundai, VW Group, GM, Daimler, Bosch, Honda and Nissan, are active in nearly every transportation field. Moreover, it would seem their involvement encompasses not only specific end-products, but also the manufacturing of core elements.