IRENA is predicting the future of liquid biofuels by monitoring the number and technology-type of patents. It’s not looking good. The first thing to note is that, after a promising rise, the total number of patents has slid from over 6,000 in 2011 to around 2,500 in 2017. That’s reflected in the dramatic fall in global biofuel investments, from $27bn in 2007 to $2bn in 2017. The likely main cause is a lack of stable regulation, say Alessandra Salgado and Francisco Boshell at IRENA. The warning is apt. Today, global production is 130bn litres/year. This needs to triple by 2030 and rise five-fold by 2050 to 650bn litres/annum to meet the Paris goals. That’s because liquid biofuels are marked as an important substitute for hard-to-decarbonise sectors like freight, shipping, and aviation; these transport modes currently account for over 12% of total global energy-related CO2 emissions. Many technologies already exist (e.g. biofuels produced from lignocellulosic feedstock, municipal waste, and waste oils, fats or algae) but the pathways to meeting their full potential is still far from clear. The authors run through the technologies and countries involved.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) foresees that advanced liquid biofuels have a role to play in meeting the Paris Agreement goals, which aim to limit the rise in average global temperatures to “well below” two degrees Celsius (2oC).
Advanced liquid biofuels – biofuels produced from lignocellulosic feedstock, municipal waste, and waste oils, fats or algae with a smaller impact in terms of land-use – are currently a viable option to decarbonise some energy use sectors, particularly some applications in the transport sector that cannot yet be electrified in a cost-effective way, namely freight, shipping, and aviation. These transport modes currently account for over 12% of total global energy-related CO2 emissions. However, according to patent data, biofuel innovation trends have slowed in the recent years, drawing potential challenges to their development, commercialisation and widespread deployment.
Lack of stable regulations, technology development
At present, the liquid biofuels market stands at a global production of 130 billion litres per annum. IRENA’s energy transition scenario, aligned with the Paris Agreement, indicates that the market should grow three-fold by 2030, to more than 370 billion litres per annum, and five-fold by 2050, to 650 billion litres per annum (IRENA, 2019a). A recent study from IRENA, “Advanced biofuels: What holds them back?”, surveyed experts on the major obstacles for scaling up liquid biofuels. Experts indicated that the lack of stable regulations for the use of liquid biofuels represented the biggest roadblock.
Another important obstacle identified was technology development. The study showed that despite the rapid evolution of technologies to convert lignocellulosic feedstock to drop-in fuels, they have not yet reached commercial maturity and doubts remain regarding the technological readiness to implement these technologies for drop-in gasoline and diesel.
Taking the pulse: monitoring biofuel patents
Innovation must expand and focus on increasing the efficiency of production processes for advanced biofuels and reducing production costs, as well as pursuing large commercial-scale demonstration plants. IRENA has looked into patent filing data for advanced liquid biofuels as an indicator to monitor innovation activity in this technology field, through its online tool INSPIRE (INternational Standards and Patents In Renewable Energy), an interactive database that helps to track in an easy way technology advances through patents (see details at end of article).
The leaders: grain bio-ethanol, cellulosic bio-ethanol, bio-diesel, bio-pyrolysis
Over the past decade, more than 2,000 biofuel patent applications were filed each year. Four main areas are at the forefront of global biofuel patent activity, grain bio-ethanol, cellulosic bio-ethanol, bio-diesel, and bio-pyrolysis. Globally, just under a quarter of patent filings relate to advanced liquid biofuel- conversion of lignocellulosic feedstocks, including cellulosic bio-ethanol (19%) and bio-pyrolysis (14%). Patent filings for conventional biofuels – grain bioethanol (22%) and biodiesel (18%) – account for up to two-fifths of the total.
…but total patents declined after 2011
Biofuel patent filings peaked in 2011, after which invention activity has been in decline, as displayed in (below). Looking at conventional generation biofuels, such as grain bioethanol and biodiesel, patent fillings decreased after the spike period in 2011, which could be explained by these technologies reaching a certain level of maturity. In the case of advanced biofuel patents, a similar declining trend is observed, except for bio-pyrolysis, which show a relatively stable trend after 2011. While patent filings dropped in 2012, from over 850 to 600 filed patents, filings stabilised in 2013 and increased again to almost 800 in 2016.
Investments declined from $27bn (2007) to $2bn (2017)
Importantly, the downward trend for liquid biofuel patent filings may correspond to the declining investments in these technologies experienced in the last decade, as shown in . Biofuel investments have dramatically fallen, from 27 billion USD in 2007 to 2 billion USD in 2017, as documented in the recent IRENA study “Advanced biofuels: What holds them back?”, (IRENA, 2019c).
China, Europe, U.S., Japan, Korea, Canada
As of today, China, Europe, the United States, Japan, Korea and Canada are the countries and region with most patent filings, as illustrated in . In the case of China, the country holds the most filed patents and is also exploring biofuel production, ranking within the top 10 biofuel producers in the world.
The United States and European countries show interest in bio-ethanol, both conventional grain-bioethanol and advanced cellulosic bio-ethanol. The United States in particular is exploring ways to drive down the costs of advanced bio-ethanol and spur overall biofuels innovation. In 2019, the country announced the selection of 35 projects totalling 73 million USD for bioenergy research and development ( Bioenergy International, 2019).
In Europe, countries such as France and Germany continue to be active in patent filing, representing two of the top 10 largest bio-diesel producers globally. Other countries, including Japan, have a stronger emphasis on innovation for bio-pyrolysis technology, whereas whereas Korea focus on bio-diesel; and Canada on grain bio-ethanol and cellulosic bio-ethanol technology inventions.
Exporting the technology
Another highlight extracted from patent data analysis is that innovation does not always occur where commercialisation is taking place. As illustrated in , countries like Japan, Korea, Australia and Mexico, are among the top patent filing countries for biofuels, while lacking a significant production market. This may indicate an interest from an industrial perspective in a biofuels technology market to be exported to other regions with higher feedstock options available for production.
On the other hand, countries such as Thailand and Indonesia are large biofuel producers, but experience very low patent activity. This may reflect a potential opportunity to develop an industry that can benefit from economies of scale in such geographies.
Global picture: production, patents
The patent landscape for advanced liquid biofuels calls for more decisive efforts to innovate and continue to develop the technology pathways for their production in a cost-competitive manner. However, these efforts must go beyond RD&D, to innovation in better business models and improved and stable market regulation for biofuels.
INSPIRE- International Standards and Patents in Renewable Energy
Data and charts used in this article have been gathered using the web tool INSPIRE. INSPIRE is an online tool developed by IRENA to perform analysis on patents and technical standards in renewable energy, by using the different dashboards, and to create awareness of latest trends in innovative technologies for renewable energy. INSPIRE data is based on the Y02 classification for climate change mitigation technology patents of the European Patent Office.
Access INSPIRE at: http://inspire.irena.org
An online tutorial is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2AOwZH5sxM
Access Y02 classification at: https://worldwide.espacenet.com/classification?locale=en_EP#%21/CPC=Y02
The article has valuable contributions from: Dolf Gielen, Seungwoo Kang, Rodrigo Leme and Toshimasa Masuyama, Sean Ratka (IRENA) and Geert Boedt (European Patent Office).
Bioenergy International, 2019. US DOE announces US$73 million for 35 bioenergy R&D projects. [Online]
Available at: https://bioenergyinternational.com/research-development/us-department-of-energy-announces-us73m-for-35-bioenergy-rd-projects
[Accessed November 2019].
IRENA, 2019a. Global Energy Transformation: A roadmap to 2050, Abu Dhabi: International Renewable Energy Agency.
IRENA, 2019b. IRENA REsource. [Online]
Available at: https://irena.org/Statistics/View-Data-by-Topic/Finance-and-Investment/Investment-Trends
IRENA, 2019c. IRENA, 2019b. Advanced biofuels – What holds them back?, Abu Dhabi: International Renewable Energy Agency.
IRENA, 2019d. INSPIRE. [Online]
Available at: http://inspire.irena.org