15 Jun 2022
Carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies have great potential to combat climate change by directly reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Considering the enormous value proposition, development of these technologies for commercial use has been the focus of significant investment from private and government entities.
To support innovation and investment, the US government has prioritized intellectual property protection for carbon capture and storage technologies. Earlier this month, the US Patent & Trademark Office announced its new Climate Change Mitigation Pilot Program, which provides accelerated examination for patent applications “involving technologies that mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
Tech companies who are developing carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies can take advantage of the USPTO’s new pilot program to accelerate their patent portfolios and gain an exclusive edge in this rapidly growing field.
What is Carbon Capture and Storage?
Some carbon capture technologies extract CO2 emissions from industrial facilities (e.g., power plants, refineries, etc.) and other large-scale sources of CO2. The captured CO2 can then be compressed to a liquid-like state and transported to a storage site (for example, an underground reservoir), or it can be used to produce useful products like chemicals, fuels or materials.
Carbon capture processes known as “direct air capture” (DAC) extract CO2 directly from air to reduce the existing CO2 concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere. Because CO2 makes up only around 0.5% (half of one percent) of the air in the atmosphere, vast quantities of air have to be processed to extract a meaningful amount of CO2. DAC is generally considered more challenging than capture from industrial facilities because the concentration of CO2 in air is about 300 times less than large-scale stationary sources (e.g., power plant smokestacks). Because of this, DAC is currently quite expensive and energy intensive.
Other types of carbon capture processes extract CO2 from the ocean. Seawater absorbs significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere—after diffusing into the ocean surface, CO2 is carried deep into the ocean. In fact, seawater holds nearly 150 times more carbon dioxide than air. Processes that extract CO2 from the ocean may be used to reduce seawater acidity while producing useful materials or byproducts.
Investments in Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage Technologies
Private entities and government agencies have invested significantly in the development of carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies.
In the public sector, the US government has invested billions over multiple decades. Most recently, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law in November of 2021, included significant funding for carbon capture. As a result, over a billion dollars was allocated in FY22 to fund the advancement of these technologies.
Private funding for carbon capture and storage technology has also increased. For example, ExxonMobile recently announced that it has renewed and extended its joint research agreement with Global Thermostat, to further develop Global Thermostat’s DAC technologies. As another example, Space-X and Elon Musk have both supported carbon removal technologies, including the announcement of a $100 million XPrize.
Patent Trends in Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage Technologies
As these technologies advance through research and development programs, patent filings for innovations in these fields have grown significantly over the last two decades.
For example, a recent report by the European Patent Office on low carbon energy innovation showed that carbon capture utilization and storage inventions made up the highest percentage of international patent filings for from universities and public research organizations in that field. The same report showed that the top patent applicants in these fields include industrial giants like General Electric, Siemens, Toshiba and Hitachi.
Another study shows that the number of published patent filings for carbon capture technologies steadily increased each year from 2008 through 2013, and has continued to remain high since then, with several hundred new publications per year throughout the world. The study shows that entities in the U.S. and China contributed the largest share of these patent filings globally.
Where To Focus Your Patents
As with any emerging technology, patent applications for carbon capture, utilization and storage inventions should be broad enough to cover the valuable commercial aspects and narrow enough to clearly articulate distinctions over the prior art.
To maximize the scope of patent protection, technology companies should consider claiming multiple distinct aspects of their technology. Examples of innovations that might be patentable in the field of carbon capture and storage include:
Materials for capturing CO2 from specific a source (e.g., air, seawater, industrial systems, etc.):
- Solvents: Chemical or physical absorption of CO2 into a liquid carrier. Durable, low-cost non-corrosive solvent that can effectively capture CO2 using low energy input.
- Sorbents: Using physical adsorption by solid sorbents to capture CO2. Develop highly effective CO2 capture sorbents with low raw material costs, strong thermal and chemical stability and low rates of sorbent losses over time.
- Membranes: Improve permeability and selectivity, thermal and physical stability, and tolerance to contaminants.
Systems for capturing CO2 and their components:
- Combinations of different technologies that provide significant improvements, for example, eliminating conventional manufacturing constraints, reducing cost and improving performance;
- Improvements in gas flow systems, liquid flow management, heat management, solid management/disposal; and
- Specific system designs that reduce complexity and risk of failure, reduce energy cost, or allow greater scalability.
Methods used to make and operate carbon capture and storage systems:
- Methods of fabrication of materials with unique physical and chemical properties that allows capturing and conversion of CO2.
- Methods of manufacturing materials and components that are used as part of the overall CO2 capturing and conversion system (e.g., materials for high temperature processing, materials for high or low acidic environment, materials that do not corrode or do not introduce contamination to the overall process, etc.)
- Methods of operating CO2 capturing and conversion system to improve efficiency, effectiveness, reliability, safety, versatility
Captured CO2 can be an important source to produce valuable chemicals and fuels via reactions such as CO2 hydrogeneration, CO2 cycloaddition to epoxides, CO2 carbonylation of amines or alcohols. Examples of technologies in the field of carbon conversion and utilization that could be claimed in a patent application include:
- Methods and systems for the disposal, conversion, and utilization of the captured or concentrated CO2;
- Methods to reduce risk of leakage and increase duration of CO2 storage;
- Methods to reduce transportation needs for critical operations;
- Methods of using the captured CO2 for specific applications (e.g., enhanced oil recovery);
- Methods to reduce waste production, or to reduce disturbance to air, water, land and surround eco-system;
- Methods for chemical conversion of CO2 (e.g., converting CO2 to carbonate -aggregates, synthetic limestone, or other materials which can be used as building materials, electrolyte in batteries, drug manufacturing, or other applications, converting CO2 in combination with industrial waste residues, converting CO2 to polycarbonates or other polymers, polyethylene, methane, ethylene, formic acid, methanol, solid carbon, or other high-value chemical products and energy products);
- Methods for utilization of CO2 (e.g., energy storage devices, metal-CO2 battery, other industrial processes);
- Systems for conversion and utilization of CO2 (e.g., thermolysis reactor, electrolysis reactors, electrodialysis cell, photoelectrochemical reactor, etc.); and
- Systems using renewable energy source in CO2 conversion process.
To obtain a patent, the claimed invention must non-obvious (or “inventive”) compared to the prior art. To help demonstrate that the invention is non-obvious, your patent application should clearly convey how the invention provides an improvement or advantage over prior technologies. Examples of advantages that might be provided by carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies include:
- Superior selectivity for CO2 capture and removal capacities;
- Improved efficiency maintaining captured CO2 at a storage site;
- Enhanced CO2 capture rates from ambient air, seawater or other sources;
- Improved chemical conversion rates of CO2 to valuable or useful chemical products;
- Higher efficiency (e.g., low energy consumption and high faradic efficiency, and high carbon capture efficiency);
- Lower environmental impact or physical footprint;
- Improved utilization of CO2 in manufacturing, energy conversion/storage, or other applications; and
- Many others!
Accelerate Your US Patent Applications
The team at Henry Patent Law Firm understands the complexity of patenting technology in the emerging field of carbon capture and conversion. We also understand how to navigate the USPTO’s new Climate Change Mitigation Pilot Program, and we have significant experience obtaining accelerated examination status for US patent applications. Contact us today to find out how we can help.
Ke Sun, Ph.D.
Ke Sun, Ph.D., is a registered patent agent. He applies his expertise to preparing and prosecuting domestic and international patent applications.