Graphene supercapacitors – a Breakthrough Energy investment opportunity?

“The dearth of venture funding for clean energy technologies threatens to create a valley of death for the industry, with emerging ideas unable to find the necessary capital to reach commercialisation. As an investor-led effort, Breakthrough Energy Ventures is designed as a source of patient capital to spur innovation to meet the growing demand for low-cost, clean energy solutions.”
Bill Gates, 2016

Breakthrough Energy Report


Graphene Battery Tech & IP

Can patent analysis shed light on investment opportunities for graphene battery technology?

Opportunity

Anthropogenic climate change presents a huge challenge to humanity. Recognising the seriousness of the situation and the need for global action, a legally binding global climate deal was struck in Paris in 2015. At the time of writing, 174 countries have so far ratified the UN Paris Agreement on climate change. Article 2 describes how governments will aim to limit the global temperature increase to “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”. To achieve this, we have to curtail our emissions. The situation we are in represents a huge opportunity for green technology which in turn requires sizable investment.

In December 2016, Bill Gates announced his Breakthrough Energy Coalition will invest $1 billion to back radical, clean energy ideas. The aim of this coalition is to provide venture capital to jump-start innovation in more environmentally-friendly technologies to tackle climate change. Not having access to capital can often be a barrier to people who wish to develop clean technology, particularly if the idea is radical and potentially disruptive. But it is precisely these types of breakthrough technologies which could help us meet our emission reduction targets.

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition is committed to investing in companies that will bring innovation from start-up to bankability, guiding very early stage innovations across the “valley of death” to market. There is a four-part investment criteria that the Breakthrough Energy Coalition have set out to ensure that only meaningful projects with the potential to make a big impact will access funds from the Breakthrough Energy Ventures. The criteria are:

  1. Environmental Impact: Could substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  2. Attractive Investment: Attractive to investors other than the Breakthrough Energy Coalition
  3. Proof-of-Concept: Proof that it works
  4. Need: Needs capital from the Breakthrough Energy Venture.

Hypothesis

A year ago, shortly after the Breakthrough Energy Ventures was announced, we investigated likely areas of interest. We posited that graphene batteries would be a strong contender for Breakthrough Energy Ventures funding.

As Bill Gates notes in his article Beating Nature at Its Own Game, the energy density of current batteries does not fare well when compared with conventional fuels. An energy miracle in the form of a breakthrough in the battery technology is needed. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition are keen to find alternatives which use “abundant material” as opposed to rare-earth materials which have come under fire for their environmental credentials and face scarcity and production issues. One of the oft-touted leading candidate in the battery technology space is the supercapacitor. These may one day substitute or work alongside the all-pervasive lithium-ion batteries in industries spanning transport, consumer electronics, healthcare and grid storage.

Graphene batteries satisfy both Bill Gates’ desire for a battery made from more environmentally friendly materials and one that has a higher energy density. It is also a technology that fits the investment criteria for the Breakthrough Energy Ventures:

  1. Environmental Impact: The batteries could have an impact on a wide range of fields, expediting the global transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy production by providing a viable energy storage system and enabling the development of compelling, greener, electric products
  2. Attractive Investment: Graphene batteries are already piquing investors’ interest
  3. Proof-of-Concept: There are encouraging signs from promising R&D and proof-of-concept work such as: Samsung’s graphene ball battery, Huawei’s graphene-assisted battery and Dongxu Optoelectronics’ G-King battery
  4. Need: Time and money will be needed to scale this work into fully fledged marketable products.

Technology

Conventional lithium-ion batteries use chemical reactions to store and release energy. In contrast, capacitors, and their high-capacity form – supercapacitors – store energy in an electric field. The amount of energy that can be stored in a supercapacitor is dependent on the surface area of its conductive plates. Therefore, if the material the plates are made of has a very high surface area, a large amount of energy can be stored. This is where the wonder-material graphene comes in. Due to its single-layer hexagonal lattice structure, graphene has an incredibly high surface area, is highly conductive and lightweight. Thus, graphene’s properties make it ideally suited to integration in a supercapacitor battery. Graphene batteries promise to be lighter, store more energy, have much quicker charging times and longer lifespans.

IP Analysis

The analyst team at ClearViewIP specialise in extracting meaningful insights from patent data. Delving into the graphene battery IP landscape, we have found 10,000+ patented inventions in the graphene energy storage space.

It is important to note that the chemical structure of graphene itself cannot be patented, as it exists in nature, and therefore does not qualify as patentable subject matter. Further, a scientific discovery is also deemed excluded subject matter so the scientists at Manchester University’s discovery of the single layer atomic structure is also not patentable. However, it is possible to patent applications, devices and processes which exploit the advantageous properties of the material – such as supercapacitor graphene batteries. This is exactly what many players in this field have already done.

Figure 1 shows that there has been a rapid increase in patent filings related to batteries with graphene technology over the last decade. This confirms our initial view that this is a subject area worthy of investigation from the perspective of the Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Rapid increase in patent filing

Patent filing timeline for graphene battery technology

Figure 1: Increase in patent filings related to batteries with graphene technology over the last decade


Geographical spread of patent filings

Graphene has been studied since 1946 but it wasn’t until a few years after the successful isolation of a single layer of graphene that there was a sudden surge in interest in this field. This emerging, potentially disruptive, technology is gathering interest from around the world, as we can see from the map below.

Patent filing by geography

Figure 2: Geographical spread of patent filings

Figure 2 shows that the vast majority of the patents relating to graphene supercapacitors are filed in China. Such is the dominance of Chinese filings, they have more granted patents and applications filed than the other top nine jurisdictions combined, as is evident from Figure 3. This finding is true for graphene-related patents in general and is confirmed by Sir Kostya Novoselov, one of the scientists who isolated graphene, in his interview with the BBC. He spoke of the rising competition to commercialise graphene from southeast Asia and China.

Patent filing by jurisdiction filing-jurisdiction-for-graphene-battery-technology

Figure 3: Filings by jurisdiction


Who is active in this space?

We used our proprietary patent scoring technique to produce an average score of each of the top 15 assignee’s patent families in our dataset. The score quantifies the quality of the assignee’s IP assets based on a number of factors and indicators. These scores help establish a starting point for ClearViewIP’s patent review process by identifying the assets which are likely to be of greatest interest.

Figure 4 illustrates the score attributed to each of the largest portfolios in our dataset against their average age. There is a stark contrast in the figure above between academic institutions and private companies. The latter appear to have older, higher scoring patents indicating that they seized the opportunity to capture foundational patents in this area before their competitors – and the universities – were able to. The academic institutions have filed patents more recently and have similarly sized portfolios relating to graphene supercapacitors, but those patents appear to be on average of lower value. Perhaps it is the enormous commercial potential that prompted increased R&D spending within companies like Samsung and LG which resulted in those early technological gains and resultant patent filings. Of the assignees with the largest portfolios in this space, a dominance of Asian companies and universities is evident. China is the major exporter of rare earth materials integral to the manufacture of batteries and therefore has a vested interest in any replacement or disruptive technology in this field. However, it should be noted that many non-Asian companies such as GM, Nokia, Bosch, Merck, IBM, Intel, Philips and 3M as well as numerous US universities are also placing bets on this technology and feature on our list of assignees, albeit with fewer graphene supercapacitor-related patents than some of their Asian competitors.

Well-known academic institutions and large corporations also feature in the list of the top cited patent families (Table 1). Citations can be a rough indicator of patent quality. A foundational patent will attract a lot of interest from other patent assignees who will build upon their ideas, citing the original patent in the process. Studying citing assignees can give an indication as to which industries the patented invention is having an impact. In addition, it can give clues as to which companies are active in the same, or very closely related, field.

Assignee portfolio scoring

Graphene battery Assignee-portfolio-scoring

Figure 4: Top 15 assignee’s portfolio algorithmic scoring

 


Top Cited Patents

Representative Patent Number Assignee Invention Summary Number of Citations Selection of Citing Assignees
US7659350B2 Princeton University A method for making graphene. Specifically, for making exfoliated graphite separated down to individual graphene sheets. 838 Lockheed Martin, Vorbeck Materials, Georgia Tech, Semiconductor Energy Lab
US7745047B2 Samsung A graphene-based composition for use in the anode of a lithium-ion battery 660 LG, Sharp, Airbus, Semiconductor Energy Lab, Harvard University
US7842432B2 OneD Material Graphene nanowire structures for use as membranes and diffusion layers in fuel cells 554 Hitachi, Merck, GM, Semiconductor Energy Lab, LG, Honeywell, Fujitsu, Audi
US6812634B2 ULVAC A battery with cone-shaped graphene sheets embedded within it as the active material in the negative electrodes. 342 LG, Canon, MIT, HP, University of California, Georgia Tech, Du Pont
US7854991B2 National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science & Technology A battery electrode made with a carbon nanotube structure comprising a grid of nanotubes in parallel with each other and attached at one end. 320 Fujifilm, MIT, Honda, Caltech, GE, Los Alamos National Security
US8580432B2 Samsung Lithium-ion battery electrodes composed of graphene re-enforced nanocomposite material. 296 Ocean S King Lighting Science & Technology, Bosch, LG, NEC, Semiconductor Energy Lab, GM, PPG Industries, Princeton University
US9093693B2 Samsung A process for producing graphene re-enforced nanocomposite material for lithium-ion battery electrodes. 282 Semiconductor Energy Lab, Donghua University, Belenos Clean Power, Princeton University, University of California, Swatch
US8936874B2 Nanotek Instruments A porous layer of graphene-based nano-filaments connected to a lithium battery electrode. 280 Hong Kong Applied Science & Technology, Amprius, LG, IBM, Samsung
US8257867B2 Battelle Memorial Institute, Princeton University An energy storage device having within it a nanocomposite material comprising a graphene later bonded to a metal oxide 278 Hyundai, Semiconductor Energy Lab, Changan University, Samsung, Nokia, Belenos Clean Power
US9045346B2 Belenos Clean Power Method of producing a stable dispersion of single and multiple layers of graphene in solution 258 Semiconductor Energy Lab, Toyota, Samsung, Nanotek Instruments, Nanyang Technological University

Table 1: Patent families with the highest number of citations


Potential Breakthrough Energy Ventures investment opportunities

As we see from some of the assignees in Table 1, it is not always the large multinational corporations that make major technology advancements. Sometimes, it is a lone inventor or employee at an SME who has the eureka moment.

Algorithmic scoring and other automated analysis, like we have seen so far, can aid in the exploration and identification of viable investment candidates, but these methods cannot substitute for human review. Only with the help of an expert eye, the utilisation of extensive IP knowledge and data interpretation skills, is it possible to find the “needles in the haystack”; in this case, that means finding the lesser-known, innovative companies which are developing graphene battery technology.

We have shown in Table 2, a selection of particularly relevant smaller innovative companies extracted from our dataset. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition would do well to consider using their venture to invest in these types of companies; these are the ones where their funding would perhaps make the biggest impact.

Company Size Description Graphene
Battery-Related
Patent Families
Known Investments
Nanoramic Laboratories 

formerly

Fastcap Systems

Boston, USA

Medium

(51-200)

Offers an array of supercapacitors and specialises in nanotubes. Has patented a supercapacitor battery which can be made with graphene 7
  • Multimillion dollar grant from DOE ARPA-E in 2010 to develop ultracapacitor technology for electric vehicles
  • Grant from DOE Geothermal Technologies Program in 2011 for geothermal energy power systems
  • A series of grants totaling more than $1 million for five aerospace ultracapacitor projects
Skeleton Technologies

Tallinn, Harjumaa

Medium

(51-200)

A global leader in graphene-based ultracapacitors and energy-storage systems. 4
  • European Investment Bank was a lead investor in a Debt Financing round in 2017 where the company raised €15M
  • In 2016 the company raised €13M with lead investor Firstfloor Capital
Printed Energy

Brisbane, Australia with R&D facilities in Arizona, USA

Design and develop printed energy storage devices which can incorporate graphene 3
OneD Material

California, USA

Small

(2-10)

Patents manufacturing processes for making silicon-graphite active materials for high energy lithium-ion batteries 2
Zenlabs Energy

California, USA

 Small Creates hybrid lithium-ion batteries made from composite materials made with graphene 2

Table 2: Potential investment targets in the graphene battery space


Takeaways

Studying the graphene supercapacitor patent landscape enabled us to verify that it is a rapidly expanding field. Mining the data revealed that large corporate technology companies such as LG and Samsung have been actively filing high-quality patents in this space for several years, while academic institutions have entered the game later but with increased volume – particularly in China. Automated analysis, coupled with in-depth manual review from our IP and technical experts, identified four particularly relevant companies in this space. They stood out as they are developing batteries with a focus or composition involving graphene.

For investors, incubators and accelerators alike, intellectual property should be viewed as a useful tool for their decision making. Patent databases represent a wealth of valuable data on the latest technological developments. Exploiting this repository of information can help guide business and investment decisions. Mining IP databases and IP analysis can influence decisions by providing decision makers with a more complete picture of the technology and players in the space.