Recently, Wal-Mart placed an order for 1,738 fuel cell powered forklifts that move products in Wal-Mart’s warehouses. This highly publicized order spotlights the emerging commercial markets, the technologies and patents that have made the production of energy through fuel cells more cost effective. The commercial use of fuel cells is certainly not new, however. Advancements in the technology have decreased costs associated with the production of energy from fuel cells and consequently there has been a rise in the commercial use of fuel cells. The Clean Energy Patent Growth Index shows that for the last decade fuel cell related patents outpaced all other clean energy technology patents until 2013 when solar patents for the first time surpassed fuel cell patents.

The number of patents that have been issued related to fuel cells is an indication of the varied forms of fuel cells and technology used in the production of fuel cells. A very simplistic description of the technology is that a fuel, typically hydrogen, is oxidized in the first segment of the fuel cell to create positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons. While the positively charged ions pass through the fuel cell, the negatively charged electrons are diverted and directed through a wire to create an electric current. The electrons complete the detour to meet up with the ions in the final segment of the fuel cell where they combine with oxygen to create water or carbon dioxide. The energy produced is clean, with water or carbon dioxide being the only by-product.


While high capital costs have been an impediment to the use of fuel cells to power homes in the United States, several businesses use stationary fuel cell systems at operational facilities. As well, telecommunication companies are beginning to use fuel cells as backup power sources for their telecom network towers. Readers in our area may recall the difficulty getting cell phone calls through during Superstorm Sandy. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) quickly noted on its website that cell phone towers that went to fuel cell backup power operated without any issues, while other forms of backup power were affected by the storm.

In the automobile industry, Toyota is marketing a fuel cell vehicle for 2015 and new fuel cell vehicles are driving the development of fueling stations nationwide as discussed in DOE’s 2013 State of the States Report. Automobile manufacturers GM, Toyota and Hyundai filed for the most clean energy patents in the third quarter of 2013 and a majority of these patents where fuel cell patents.

As noted herein, the advancement in the technology has driven the number of patent applications and issued patents directed at fuel cell technology. Also notable, is the diversification of fuel cell patent portfolios and products being marketed through mergers and acquisitions. Last week, Plug Power, Inc, which received the order from Wal-Mart and specializes in fuel cells for warehouse forklifts, increased its patent portfolio to more than 184 patents with its acquisition of ReliOn Inc., adding stationary fuel cell backup power systems to its product lines.

Uzoamaka N. Okoye is an Associate in the Gibbons Real Property & Environmental Department. Samuel H. Megerditchian, Counsel to the Gibbons Intellectual Property Department, co-authored this post. This post originally appeared on Gibbons IP Law Alert on April 10, 2014.