Patenting the Battery Revolution – the UK’s Position
Battery technology is a highly innovative sector with large numbers of patent filings. We take a look at the UK’s position, past, present, and future.

On the wall outside the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory in Oxford there is a blue plaque, identifying this as the site where a key invention was made in 1980 that enabled the development of the now-ubiquitous lithium-ion battery (LIB). The breakthrough was the discovery that lithium could be reversibly extracted from lithium cobalt oxide by applying a voltage, thus providing a class of cathode material which is still used to this day in LIBs. The plaque is hexagonal – a shape more typically beloved by organic chemists than inorganic – but appropriate here as the later invention that the use of graphitic carbon as an anode solved safety problems and opened the door to Sony’s commercialisation of this new type of battery in 1991. The plaque identifies John Goodenough, Koichi Mizushima, Philip Jones, and Philip Wiseman for the work; John Goodenough shared the 2019 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with two further scientists for the development of LIBs.

The team in Oxford had the foresight to patent their new cathode material. European Patent No. 0 017 400 was granted in 1984, with equivalents granted in Japan and the US. The patents were owned by United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, whose site in neighbouring Harwell had provided funding to the Oxford team. The filing date was in 1980 so, despite that commercialisation of LIBs took about another ten years and the invention of graphitic anodes, this was a valuable piece of intellectual property. Philip Wiseman – one of the scientists on the blue plaque and an inventor on the patent – commented in a 2017 reflection article “So Harwell’s royalties started to roll in. I’m not sure how many tens of millions they made but I did notice one year, the headline in the Business section of the Daily Telegraph was ‘Battery Powered’”. In the same article Wiseman refers to two efforts by Sony to “break” the patent – presumably to invalidate it – without success. It is also of note that infringement proceedings based on the equivalent US patents included an “inequitable conduct” defence from the alleged infringer that the patentee had failed to bring to the attention of the US patent office key prior art cited on the European patent – a reminder to all European attorneys not to forget the information disclosure requirements which are a key part of US patent practice. In a 1995 parliamentary debate on the privatisation of the Atomic Energy Authority one MP noted “[The Atomic Energy Authority] has been involved in promoting and producing the lithium-ion cathode battery technology, which is now in use worldwide thanks to a licensing agreement with Sony Technology”[1].

So, if a UK lab can lay claim to being the site of an invention fundamental to the LIB revolution, and if a UK entity monetised the fundamental IP protecting this invention, where does the UK sit now in the global picture of battery innovation and IP?

Analysis of patent filing numbers over the last 20 years – admittedly somewhat of a blunt instrument – paints a picture of recent Asian dominance in the field of LIBs, with the UK somewhere in the middle of the pack, or perhaps lower if accounting for the size of the UK economy. In particular, we have analysed the number of patent applications filed at the European Patent Office classified as relating to LIBs under the dedicated International Patent Classification (IPC) code H01M 10/0525[2], grouped by applicant nationality:

Figure 1: Number of European patent applications and granted patents classified with IPC code H01M 10/0525, plotted by first publication year, grouped by first applicant nationality. Asia: JP, KR, TW, CN; EEA: European Economic Area; GB: United Kingdom; US: United States of America; ROTW: Rest of the World.  Includes PCT applications designating EP, as these are assigned an EP application number. A granted patent is plotted in the same year that its corresponding application was first published. Accordingly, a larger difference between the number of applications and the number of grants is expected for more recent years due to the time required for an application to be examined before it may be granted.

Since ~2010 the number of applications and granted patents originating from Asia has taken a significant lead over those from the rest of the world. Compared to the Asian dominance, the UK filings are hard to discern from the baseline. Indeed, removing Asian patents from the graph is needed to assess the UK’s contribution at all:

Figure 2: Figure 1 but excluding data for Asian applicants

Although lithium-ion is the dominant battery chemistry for many mainstream applications and is a highly active field for innovation (Carpmaels having several clients from around the world in this area), there is far more to battery innovation than lithium. Similar trends as for lithium-ion can be seen when looking at IPC codes for other battery chemistries.For instance, code H01M 10/054[3] for metal-ion batteries using metals other than lithium again shows Asian dominance, at least for pending applications, with little UK activity:

Figure 3: Number of European patent applications and granted patents classified with IPC code H01M 10/054, plotted by first publication year, grouped by applicant nationality.

 Indeed, performing the same analysis on the broader parent IPC code H01M[4] – covering all battery technology – shows the same:

Figure 4: Number of European patent applications and granted patents classified with IPC code H01M, plotted by first publication year, grouped by applicant nationality.

Looking deeper into the numbers, the UK does not compare well even to our European counterparts. UK entities were responsible for ~1,250 applications under code H01M across the period analysed, compared to ~8,500 and ~2,500 respectively from the similarly-sized economies of Germany and France.

If the UK is lagging behind the competition, then why might that be? A study by the Faraday Institution on the growth of the UK battery manufacturing industry notes that “The UK is making progress but not moving fast enough compared to its European competitors. UK battery manufacturing plants could reach a combined capacity of 57 GWh by 2030, equivalent to around 5% of total European GWh capacity, compared with 34% in Germany”. If the UK is projected to manufacture a low proportion of batteries in comparison to the size of its market, perhaps it is no surprise that it seems to give rise to a low proportion of patent applications.

It could also be that the low numbers of patent applications related to batteries is symptomatic of a much broader British problem. Research conducted by the UK Intellectual Property Office in 2017 found that UK companies seemingly have a natural tendency to file fewer patent applications than their foreign counterparts, finding that “Measuring patents per million Euros of R&D investment, the UK companies have the lowest propensity to patent, with 0.4 patents per million Euros R&D. This compares with 1.0 for Germany and 0.9 for France. Companies in Korea and Japan had the highest propensity to patent at 5.7 and 3.6 patents per million Euros of R&D investment respectively”. The reasons for this are likely complex and were given the general heading “Cultural Differences” by the UKIPO, who also noted that engineers from the likes of Germany are more likely to be educated in intellectual property than those from the UK. Are these cultural differences to blame for the low numbers of patent applications relating to batteries originating from the UK?

There are reasons to be optimistic, however. The patent filing numbers are beginning to show an increase in UK-originating applications over the last two-to-three years, a trend mirrored by the firm’s UK-based clients, while at the same time the number of Asian-originating applications seems to have plateaued. Are we seeing the effects of recent UK government funding for battery research, with more funding on the way? Moreover, are the supposed “cultural differences” really present in this field in the UK? The author recalls spending his PhD researching fuel cell electrodes in a UK university surrounded by international colleagues – French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese – so if there is a traditional British cultural indifference towards seeking patent protection then perhaps this is changing due to the international nature of UK-based research. Indeed, there was a truly international feel to the Oxford team on the blue plaque mentioned at the start of this article, with their patent application naming inventors from the UK, the US, and Japan.

Finally, it should be emphasised that securing valuable patent protection is far more than a numbers game. The graphs above simply show the numbers of patent applications and patents, but these numbers do not account for patent quality. That first patent from the Oxford team would score just “one” in the numbers game, the same as a patent which was never monetised or never even covered a commercial product. Indeed, the “quality-over-quantity” approach is one in which this author strongly believes; a handful of carefully drafted high-quality patent applications are far more powerful than a raft of hastily prepared patent applications of dubious distinction. The former, more focused strategy relies on the ability of the patent attorney to collaborate with the innovation team to understand the invention on a deep technical level, and to have the experience, the expertise, and the confidence to define inventions clearly and precisely. That philosophy is central to Carpmaels’ approach, and while it may require more time and intellectual effort upfront, our clients reap the benefit further down the line (and we also happen to find that way of working a lot more fun!). We have seen over the years how properly configuring and investing in an IP strategy at an early stage builds one of the pillars for future economic success, providing patents of higher value and tending to avoid the uncertainty and cost-sink of protracted battles with patent offices and third parties associated with poorly considered low-cost patent applications.

In view of the above, we believe that UK-based battery innovators should keep IP and patents at the forefront of their strategies, including engaging with patent attorneys at the early stages of their research and educating their workforce to be more patent-savvy – overcoming any “British indifference” to patent protection (if indeed there is such a thing at all). They need only look to the pioneers named on the blue plaque in Oxford for inspiration. Although the UK seems unlikely to approach the bare numbers of filings from other regions, if there is another invention of the same significance in this field – and of course if that invention is protected by a robust patent – then the potential returns are enormous.


[1] Hansard, HC Deb 14 March 1995 vol 256 cc699-785

[2] “Rocking-chair batteries, i.e. batteries with lithium insertion or intercalation in both electrodes; Lithium-ion batteries”

[3] “Accumulators with insertion or intercalation of metals other than lithium, e.g. with magnesium or aluminium”

[4] “Processes or means, e.g. batteries, for the direct conversion of chemical energy into electrical energy”