When it comes to patenting an invention, we generally tend to think in terms of tangible products - innovative electrolysis systems or hydrogen tanks, for example. And even though these types of products are indispensable solutions, they do not have an exclusive right to protection. Methods can also be protected with a patent, and it is often very worthwhile doing this, especially in the hydrogen industry.
Difference between method and device claims
A patent application contains several elements. A description of the innovation, drawings and abstracts, for example. But it is the claims that form the core of a patent. These state exactly what the invention is and what is protected. We distinguish between device claims and method claims. The name gives away the meaning - a device claim protects a device or machine, and a method claim protects a method or process. So this could also be how a particular product is used or how it is made. In practice, we see patent applications with only device claims and patent applications with only method claims. However, most patent applications we draft at EP&C contain both types of claims. Because the method claim is often phrased slightly differently to the device claims, a combination of the two offers maximum scope of protection.
Don't forget the method claim
And what makes this interesting specifically for the hydrogen industry? Because this is pre-eminently an industry in which a lot of innovation takes place in terms of processes and methods. For example: supposing you come up with a system that produces more hydrogen during peak loads on the energy network. It may seem as though this is not patentable. After all, the steps and components you use are already known. Moreover, inventors often think, "I simply put together a couple of components, that's all." By thinking like this the inventor seriously underestimates themselves. A new method may in fact turn out to be an important solution to an energy transition issue. A new combination of known process steps and components can in fact be a patentable invention.
By including a method claim in your patent application you can reach agreements with other companies in the sector with respect to financial compensation for the use of your method when the patent is granted. This gives you a commercial edge and the industry benefits from the new innovation.
Example from the hydrogen industry
In the hydrogen industry there are already some good examples of inventions that are protected through both a device and method claim. These include a patent belonging to Battolyser Systems, a TU Delft spin-off. They invented the Battolyser. This is an electrolyser and battery in one. It can store electrical energy in the same way a battery does. In addition the Battolyser is able to produce hydrogen in the same way as an electrolyser when electrical energy is supplied.
In the patent the system is protected via a device claim. The process of storing energy and making hydrogen is protected via a method claim. The inventors were well aware of the fact that not only the battery but also the way they use it is a technical solution to a technical problem. And the latter just happens to be a condition for obtaining a patent.
Look at the bigger picture
The hydrogen industry is an emerging one. Many clever things can still be invented that have to fit into complex systems. If you are an innovator in the hydrogen industry and are considering a patent, then don't just look at the level of devices, products, nuts and bolts, but also consider if and how your device performs smart process steps. It may be possible to patent some of this so that you can ensure that your invention is optimally protected with both a device and method claim.