On the 4th July, the European Patent Office (EPO) announced the winners for the 2023 inventor awards. The inventor awards are prestigious innovation prizes honouring individuals and teams who have come up with solutions to big challenges and have obtained a granted European patent for their invention. The finalists and winners are selected by an independent jury including former award finalists who examine the proposals for their contribution towards technical progress, social and sustainable development, and economic prosperity.
Prizes are awarded in several categories including: Industry (covering large European companies), Research (covering universities), Non-EPO countries (covering international inventors but where the invention is available in Europe), SMEs, and young inventors. This year we were pleasantly surprised to see that a high proportion of the finalists across the board had a focus on renewable and green technology innovations.
In the industry category, all the finalists showed clear environmental benefits. Inventors from Total Energies developed a cheaper and more bio-friendly method to produce bioplastics, contributing to achieving a circular economy; inventors from Voestalpine developed an improved method for manufacturing galvanised steel, which in addition to be significantly stronger, produced steel that was lighter allowing for the production of safe cars with 2 to 5 % lower emissions; and the winning inventors from Neste developed technologies that enable a wide variety of wastes and residues to be transformed into renewable products. According to the EPO profile, 20% of global CO2 emissions were from the transport sector, with medium to heavy trucks and aviation being responsible for 30% of the total. One of Neste’s flagship products, Neste MY Renewable Diesel™, is produced from 100% renewable materials and is reported to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions up to 75-95% compared to fossil diesel. Further, the renewable diesel is completely compatible with regular diesel engines, and contain no aromatics or impurities, thereby allowing the fuel to combust with maximum efficiency and exhibit a high cetane number, whilst keeping the engine cleaner than other fuels. Neste also produce MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel™ which provides a cleaner, direct replacement for fossil jet fuel with a reported reduction in GHG emissions of up to 80%.
The winners of the Research and Non-EPO categories are also helping to achieve decarbonisation in the transportation sector. In the Research category, the winning inventors from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) developed of a method to store hydrogen more safely and sustainably with less energy. The method uses magnesium hydride mixed with metal additives and graphite to compress hydrogen into solid discs for easy and long-term storage in specially designed tanks. Conventionally, hydrogen gas needs to be cooled to around 20K and pressurised to around 700 bar to be stored in its liquid form.
In the Non-EPO countries, Kai Wu from Chinese battery company CATL developed a series of features to improve the safety and performance of Li-ion batteries helping contribute to the shift to electric vehicles. The developments included features to safely short-circuit an overcharged battery, development of a safer cathode material and a cell-to-pack technology that optimises the space used in the battery pack and increases the pack's energy density.
In the SME category, Rhona Togher and Eimear O’Carroll developed a composite material to reduce noise than is thin, lightweight and cost-effective. This can have green credentials as it allows vehicles using this material to be lighter and therefore more fuel-efficient. With cars seemingly getting larger and heavier every year, the ability to reduce the weight is welcome. They are also working with the European Space Agency for acoustic insulation for space applications to allow larger payloads to be launched.
Lastly, Fionn Ferreira, a finalist in the young inventor category, has also been tackling green issues and has proposed reducing microplastics pollution by using a magnetic liquid that binds to the microplastic particles. The particles can then be separated them from water sources using magnets. The method extracts the microplastics from water quickly and safely while producing zero waste and avoiding filters and chemicals. The current prototype (developed with the help of Robert Downey Jr. and his Footprint Coalition) is now reported to remove over 85% of microplastics in a single pass.
We are hopeful that the recognition of so much green innovation this year will help drive further developments in renewable energy and environmental science and we look forward to seeing even more exciting developments in the near future.
It is also very encouraging to see a significant number of female inventors being recognised in these awards. Whilst the proportion of female inventors has been rising over the years, it still lags behind where it should be. It is our hope that the award winners and nominees will be an inspiration to other female inventors and demonstrate that being an inventor is open to everyone. Indeed, it has been shown that having a diverse team of individuals can lead to greater levels of success and is something which should be encouraged, so role-models like those in the EPO inventor awards are to be applauded not only for their scientific and commercial contributions, but also their contribution to demonstrating that innovation is a rewarding career path for everyone.