Alternative energy and sustainability: Five current patenting trends

Alternative energy, responsible use of natural resources and battery recycling: Patented inventions are paving the way for a more sustainable future.

The roster of groundbreaking "green" inventions includes winners and finalists of the European Inventor Award, the annual tribute to inventors organised by the European Patent Office (EPO). Introducing:

Five current patenting trends in sustainability and alternative energy generation

1. Renewable energies: Water, wind, solar

Jörg HorzelFor many years, hydropower - generating electricity from bodies of water - was regarded as a bit of a "problem case" in the alternative energy mix. The industry took a quantum leap with the invention of a versatile spiral turbine for generating electricity by American engineer Alexander Gorlov at Northeastern University. With its increased stability, the turbine increases the energy generated from water currents from 20 % to 35 %.

Wind turbines in offshore energy parks are directly exposed to the brute forces of nature. German engineer Sönke Siegfriedsen helped secure the turbines from outside influences with his corrosion shield for offshore wind parks while optimising energy yield with an internal air circulation system.

Europe is an international leader in the field of solar energy generation, thanks to the achievements of German photovoltaics pioneer Adolf Goetzberger, founder of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) in Freiburg, Germany. Recently, major improvements in the manufacturing of solar cells were achieved by implementing "selective emitters" invented by engineer Jörg Horzel, currently a finalist for the European Inventor Award 2013.

2. “Green” battery technology: Longer lasting – less toxic

Farouk Tedjar For the longest time, battery technology was held back by two challenges: short life spans and highly toxic waste products. The sustainable auto batteries patented by American inventor Stanford Ovshinsky produce double-to-threefold the amount of energy of conventional nickel-cadmium batteries and have become a standard in many hybrid automobiles.

The current generation of hybrid-powered automobiles such as the Toyota Prius relies on an intelligent power management system invented by Japanese engineer Shoichi Sasaki for increased battery life and reduced risk of damage from overcharging.

Instead of contaminating waste deposit sites, used batteries can be returned right back into the value chain: The patented battery recycling system developed by French inventors Farouk Tedjar and Jean-Claude Foudraz saves 98 % of precious metals contained in batteries for reuse.

3. Biomass: A high-powered growth market

Jens Dall BentzenBy the year 2020, energy generation from biomass - by incinerating wood or commercial waste - is expected to cover 10 % of the European Union's energy demand. A major step toward realising this goal was achieved by the highly efficient biomass system created by engineer Jens Dall Bentzen at Dall Energy Aps in Denmark:

The patented invention increases energy efficiency by 20 to 25 % while lowering the cost of combustibles by 20 to 30 % and decreasing construction cost for biomass plants by 10 %.

4. Fuel cells: Ready to hit the road

Manfred StefenerUntil recently, fuel cells were mostly limited to stationary applications. But thanks to the mobile fuel cells patented by German chemist Manfred Stefener, winner of the 2012 European Inventor Award, the sustainable power source is fit for mobile use.

Marketed by Stefener's company Smart Fuel Cell, the invention has already sold more than 20 000 units supplying electricity in boats or recreational vehicles. 

Public transportation is also taking a turn towards "green" energy, thanks to the electrochemical fuel cell developed by Canadian engineers Ben Wiens and Danny Epp. Powered by the invention, exhaust-free city buses are transporting passengers in 15 major cities around the globe, including Amsterdam, Barcelona and London.

5. Water efficiency: Use, re-use, recycle

Ashok GadgilFor their innovative method for cleaning waste-water, Dutch scientists Mark van Loosdrecht, Merle Krista de Kreuk and Joseph Heijnen took notes from the biochemistry playbook: A complex system of biomass granulates is filtering waste-water before processing at a treatment plant, reducing energy usage by more than 20 %.  

In developing countries without public water supply networks, the highly portable UV water-disinfection device, patented by a research team led by Ashok Gadgil at the University of California in Berkeley, is saving lives: Weighing less than 8 kilograms, the efficient device can disinfect up to 1000 litres of water per hour using a 40-watt UV-lamp.

A great deal of water wastage can be avoided in private households: The compact jet regulator for water faucets patented by German inventors Hermann Grether and Christoph Weis unlocks tremendous water savings - up to 50 %!

Video: Is Europe still a leader in renewable energy technologies?

This question was posed to international experts at a panel discussion during the European Patent Forum, hosted by the European Patent Office (EPO) in April 2010 in Madrid. Our video feature highlights current challenges and the importance of patents for maintaining Europe's competitive edge in renewable technologies.

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