Europe lags behind Asia in energy storage inventions

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In the search for new technologies to enable storage of renewable energy, lithium batteries come out on top but European companies are lagging behind Asian counterparts, a new study shows.

Illustration of batteries at various charging levels

The hunt is on to find better solutions for storing energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar power. Several electrochemical energy storage technologies are competing to become the benchmark, and the number of patent applications for such technologies has soared in recent years.

“In view of these investments, we can assume that new electrochemical energy storage technologies will be ready for market entry in the near future and will be more cost-effective than the existing products,” says physicist and economist Simon C. Müller in a press release from the Technische Universität München (TUM). Müller is the lead author of a new study analysing which energy storage technologies will be viable in the exit from fossil-fuel energy.

Dynamic lithium segment

Monitoring worldwide patent applications relating to electrochemical energy storage between 1991 and 2011, the study showed that developers of lithium batteries are filing the greatest share of these patent applications.

“The lithium segment is very dynamic”, says Müller. “Quite possibly, we will soon reach a point at which a self-multiplying effect can be seen. As soon as the techno-economic data are good enough, research and development activities will attract more investments, which will generate an even stronger lead.” The use of lithium batteries in electric cars will only contribute to this development, since batteries will be in demand both in the energy sector and in the automotive industry.

Asian companies dominate

The analysis indicates that Asian companies will dominate the market, filing almost four times as many patent applications as European counterparts. In 2011, 2,100 applications for patent families relating to electrochemical energy storage could be attributed to Asian developers, 530 to European, and only 410 to US developers.

According to the index used by the TUM researchers, the top 10 in the lithium batteries segment include eight Japanese and one Korean company, with Fuji in the lead. Only one US company, Valence Technology, made the top 10 list. The most successful European institution in this area, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, ranks as number 25.

“These results raise interesting questions about research policy and development management. Further studies could, for instance, look at which strategies have given certain companies a technological lead in this field, and which lessons may be learned from this by European and US competitors,” says TUM economist Isabell M. Welpe, who co-authored the report published in the journal Applied Energy.

Adapted from TUM Research news