Press release | 17.5.2022
Munich, 17 May 2022 - The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that Belgian scientists Johan Martens, Tom Bosserez and Jan Rongé have been nominated as finalists for the European Inventor Award 2022 for their pioneering work on a solar hydrogen panel that converts sunlight and water vapour into hydrogen gas while using no precious metals nor external water supplies.
Their progress on materials that can absorb water and catalyse chemical reactions has helped overcome practical barriers in manufacturing standalone hydrogen production plants. The inventors say that twenty panels would provide enough heat and electricity for a modern home to make it through a typical Belgian winter.
"Martens and his colleagues are at the cutting edge of solar technology, providing a solution that may even empower individual households to have a greater influence in climate matters" says EPO President António Campinos, announcing the European Inventor Award 2022 finalists. "A breakthrough technology like this one is an encouraging step in boosting the use of renewables to lastingly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels."
Martens, Bosserez and Rongé are selected as finalists in the "Research" category of the European Inventor Award, which recognises inventions built on breakthroughs in cutting edge science. The team of bioscience engineers have been working together since 2013 at KU Leuven, one of Europe's leading universities for science and technology. The winners of the 2022 edition of the EPO's European Inventor Award will be announced at a virtual ceremony on 21 June.
Martens, a professor of bioscience engineering, is a serial inventor and named in 45 patent families: "To invent, my team and I just pick a problem and try to come up with an outside-the-box solution to solve it," he says. "Energy, water, health care, overheating food mixers... I look around and I see opportunities for inventions everywhere."
Following one such brainstorming session in 2010, Martens worked on an invention that captures water molecules from ambient humidity and uses sunlight to split them into useful chemicals. Realising that the technology was very ambitious, he decided to focus on producing hydrogen and recruited two graduate students, Tom Bosserez and Jan Rongé, to develop the idea into a functioning technology. From the beginning they were driven by the prospect of making a difference, using sunlight and humidity in the air to provide energy around the world.
In 2014, the trio engineered materials that, when exposed to sunlight, trigger chemical reactions on their surface that split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gases. The hydrogen can then be captured and used as a source of energy either by burning the gas as a fuel (much like liquified petroleum gas today) or by running it through a fuel cell to generate a current. In either case, unlike fossil fuels, the reaction emits no greenhouse gases.
The next steps were to boost the solar-to-hydrogen energy conversion efficiency of their lab-scale device from under 1% to over 15% and to scale up the thumbnail laboratory devices to 1-metre prototypes large enough to power household appliances. While doing so, Martens, Bosserez and Rongé took future commercial constraints into account by removing precious metals from their building materials in view of cost and scarcity issues, and integrating everything into a single panel.
"What is absolutely unique about our solar hydrogen panel is that it traps water from the air around it, not from an external water supply," said Martens. "This has made it possible to absorb water, harness solar energy, produce hydrogen and deliver it as fuel all in a single standalone panel." In contrast to existing methods for extracting hydrogen, which typically require facilities as large power plants to operate, the compactness of Martens' invention means that it can produce clean hydrogen fuel anywhere, even on rooftops.
Martens expects that by modifying the design of the panels, his team can tailor them to specific climatic conditions, like drier areas in Africa or rooftops with low sun exposure in Nordic countries. He believes that the panels could ultimately displace liquified petroleum gas in the developing world by providing a readily accessible source of clean fuel for households, notably useful for cooking stoves and refrigeration.
In 2019, the European Patent Office granted Martens, Bosserez and Rongé a key patent protecting their invention. Martens, who has co-founded four technology startups already, expects years of hard work will be necessary to turn this cutting-edge technology into a viable product, but says the patent is a crucial first step. "Our patents are important because they allow us to shelve our inventions over the long development process ahead of us," says Martens. "It takes years to develop a new technology, but all our ideas are protected in our patents, ready to use step by step as our solar hydrogen panels mature."
Martens, Bosserez and Rongé also value the freedom that their patents are granting them in how they choose to commercialise their invention. The team insists that the hydrogen solar panel should benefit the planet, not just the companies selling it. Without patents, Martens says that even cutting-edge inventions like the solar hydrogen panel could be copied and commercialised by others, reducing the incentive to innovate.
Analysts expect the market for green hydrogen to grow from EUR 393 million (USD 444 million) in 2021 to EUR 3.9 billion (USD 4.4 billion) by 2026, and the European Union has said it expects to see cumulative investment of up to EUR 470 billion in green hydrogen infrastructure by 2050. In response to this demand, Martens, Bosserez and Rongé plan to commercialise their invention by 2026. They are currently working with Comate, an engineering firm, to make their technology compatible with large-scale production, and are field-testing prototypes with Fluxys, a Belgian transmission system operator for natural gas. The team will found a company in 2022 to oversee the commercial development of their technology.
Johan Martens received his PhD in applied biological sciences from KU Leuven, Belgium, in 1985 and became a professor of bioscience engineering in 1997. He has helped run the university's Science, Engineering and Technology Group as research co-ordinator (2011-2019) and is leading KU Leuven's Center for Surface Chemistry and Catalysis. Throughout his career, Martens has worked across disciplines including chemistry, biology, nanophysics, engineering and zero-gravity experiments onboard the International Space Station. He is a founder of KU Leuven's Convergent Research Fund, a charitable operation that finances research towards ethical applications and has won multiple awards. He has dedicated his nomination for the Award to his late colleague Francis Taulelle, who died last year and with whom he shared enriching discussions on the science that underpinned many of his inventions.
Tom Bosserez has a Bachelor's, Master's and PhD in bioscience engineering from KU Leuven. He briefly worked for Waterleau, a Belgian provider of water infrastructure, before joining Martens' group to develop solar hydrogen panels. Since obtaining his PhD, he has been helping the team lift technical barriers towards the commercialisation of the technology. He has also worked as a visiting researcher at the University of Columbia in the USA and runs a citizen cooperative to invest in sustainable energy projects. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher at KU Leuven.
Jan Rongé has a Bachelor's, Master's and PhD in bioscience engineering from KU Leuven. He joined Martens' group to develop solar hydrogen panels during his PhD and coordinates the project to commercialise the technology. He has worked on nanomaterials as a visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge. He is a founding member of KU Leuven's Young Researchers' Society for Sustainability, and Druifkracht, a citizen's energy cooperative in Belgium. He is currently a post-graduate researcher at KU Leuven.
The team is named in European patents EP3027788 (granted 2019) and EP3452638 (granted 2020), held by the KU Leuven.
The European Inventor Award is one of Europe's most prestigious innovation prizes. Launched by the EPO in 2006, the award honours individuals and teams' solutions to some of the biggest challenges of our times. The finalists and winners are selected by an independent jury comprising former Award finalists. Together, they examine the proposals for their contribution towards technical progress, social and sustainable development and economic prosperity. The EPO will confer the Award in four categories (Industry, Research, SMEs and Non-EPO countries), as well as announcing a Lifetime achievement award at a virtual ceremony on 21 June. In addition, the public selects the Popular Prize winner from the 13 finalists by voting on the EPO website in the run-up to the ceremony. Voting is open until 21 June 2022. Read more on the European Inventor Award eligibility and selection criteria.
This year, for the first time, the EPO will also award bright young minds with the Young Inventors prize. The new prize offers a monetary reward to the three finalists to further encourage them to find creative solutions to pressing sustainable development challenges.
With 6 400 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening co-operation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO's centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world's leading authority in patent information and patent searching.
Luis Berenguer Giménez
Principal Director Communication, Spokesperson
EPO Press Desk
Tel. +49 89 2399 1833
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