Innovation in the field of Lignin from a patent perspective


Innovation in the field of lignin from a patent perspective

Laurence Bourget-Merle [1]
Lawyers, Patent and Trademark Agents


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Photo de matériel

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Photo de matière

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Over the last 15 to 20 years, lignin has attracted continuous and growing interest around the world. This biopolymer, which is abundantly found on Earth, representing about 15 to 25% of the Earth’s plant biomass,  is currently the subject of research in a wide variety of sectors, ranging from construction to cosmetics and biofuels, just to name a few. The valorization of lignin in sectors other than its main use as lumber and fuel has led to the discovery of innovative technologies that are the focus of numerous patents. The goal of this article is to firstly present some statistical data on the patenting activity in the field of lignin and, secondly, provide some information on the type of inventions that can be patented in this sector.

Some statistics on patenting activity in the field of lignin

According to the Orbit Intelligence patent search tool, some 3880 patent families have been published with the term “lignin” in the title of the invention worldwide over the last 20 years. The largest number of patent families has been filed in China, with 1785 families published between 9/28/2000 and 9/28/2020. China is far ahead of the United States where 418 families were published for the same period, Europe (338 families) and Japan (252 families). Canada is in 5th position among countries where patent protection has been applied for, with 206 families filed.

As shown in the graph below, the number of patent filings worldwide has been growing steadily since 2007, rising from 70 families in 2007 to 463 families in 2018. The number of filings doubled between 2012 and 2018. The figures for 2019 and 2020 have not been reported as they are not yet complete since a patent application is not published until 18 months after the first filing in a family. However, we clearly see the marked increase of the last few years demonstrating that innovation in the field of lignin is progressing well.

Number of patent families filed between 2000 and 2018 worldwide

The biggest players in the field are Chinese universities with South China University of Technology (SCUT) at the top of the list, which has filed some 193 patent families over the last 20 years. Beijing Forestry University comes in second with about 77 patent families. The top 9 applicants are all universities or institutes of technology in China. The Japanese company Sumitomo Bakelite (38 families) ranks 10th and the Finnish company UPM-Kymmene Oyj ranks 12th (29 families). The first Canadian company working in the field, FPInnovations, ranks 43rd.

However, it is important to note that Chinese players file patent applications mainly in their own country and very few abroad. On the other hand, European, American, Japanese and Canadian companies, for example, file more abroad. Therefore, if we look more closely at the patenting activity in Canada for instance, we note that the main applicants are no longer Chinese but Finnish, Swedish, Canadian, and American companies mainly, as can be seen in the table below in which the top 10 applicants in Canada are reported.

Top 10 applicants/owners in Canada between 2000 and 2020

Applicants or ownersNumber of Patent Families

According to data provided by Orbit Intelligence, the technical fields of lignin-related inventions represented in the patent families published in Canada are relatively varied. The graph below shows the top 10 technical domains according to the number of published patent families. It should be noted that counting the number of families by domain of technology results in a larger number than the 206 families published in Canada. This is due to the fact that the same family can be found in several domains of technology. The most represented technical domain is that of macromolecular chemistry and polymers with 146 patent families. Next comes biotechnology (118 families). The next two most important fields, with almost the same number of families (90 and 89), are textile and paper machines and materials chemistry.

Top 10 technical domains based on the number of patent families published in Canada between 2000 and 2020

The variety of inventions described in patents goes hand in hand with the variety of the technical fields mentioned above. Initially, we will find inventions related to the extraction of lignin from wood/plants and its purification. In general, patents in this category will protect processes. Many inventions also cover methods of modifying and purifying the lignin once extracted. In this second category, patents will protect the modification or purification process itself, but also the modified or purified lignin. Another category of inventions will encompass the use of lignin, modified or not, in numerous applications. As mentioned above, the applications are extremely varied. Thus, some patents may protect a specific use of lignin, but also compositions or formulations comprising lignin, modified or not, and other products or additives.

The sections below (far from being exhaustive!) list a few examples of Canadian patent applications or patents related to lignin for a few sectors of activity. Some documents are found in more than one sector when they protect both the extraction or modification of lignin and its use.

Lignin has a bright future ahead and the innovations related to its transformation and use will continue to catch our attention. In a global perspective of sustainable development, it is certain that research and development in this field will grow in the years to come. Industrial players will continue to file patent applications to protect their inventions and position themselves in the market against competitors. Academic players will also have a continued interest in protecting their innovations in the field to be able to offer licenses to partners in order to accelerate commercialization.

© CIPS, 2020.

[1] Laurence Bourget-Merle is a Patent Agent for ROBIC, LLP, a firm of Lawyers, Patent and Trademark Agents.