Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Emerging Landscape of Biofuels IP

In my role as Chair of the Forest Bioproducts Division of AIChE, I've been involved with technical programming and webinars dealing with biorefineries, biofuels, and conversion of biomass, especially forest and cellulosic biomass. There are a variety of intriguing pathways for converting biomass to energy, including gasification or pyrolysis to produce gases and liquids that can be subsequently converted to fuels, enzymatic pathways, and chemical pathways. Whether the end product is ethanol, biodiesel, or other fuel substances, the economics are challenging and depend on a host of issues such as raw materials source, proximity to markets, regulatory and tax issues, etc. The technology itself is an interesting mix of old processes such as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis coupled with new twists, or in some cases radical new technologies altogether.

What many people have overlooked in their enthusiasm for biofuels and biorefineries is the complex nature of the patent estate. The IP landscape is complicated by a wide variety of patent classifications that are used to index the various technologies. In gasification of biomass, for example, the patents for some key commercial technologies may be grouped with cremation devices, or may be listed in categories pertaining to stoves and ovens, methods of reclaiming waste, or chemical processing. Numerous classification codes must be considered. There is also a complex mix of universities, research labs, start-ups, lone inventors, and large companies pursuing relevant technologies, making it difficult to aggregate the key players for a meaningful review of their IP estates. But in spite of all the complexity, there is a great need for improved reviews of the IP landscape to capture trends, whitespaces, and red flags for current and planned operations.

At Innovationedge, we are applying some of our tools and expertise to better deal with this issue. I'll be presenting papers on this topic at the AIChE Annual Meeting in November in Salt Lake City and at a bio-energy conference this fall in Rockford, Illinois. Stay tuned for more information.