Although the mining and metallurgical sectors are still seen as environmentally unfriendly industries, innovation in these sectors has been increasing since the beginning of the century, including in the development of green technologies.
Four years ago, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) released a study measuring innovation in the mining industry with patents, “Mining patent data: Measuring innovation in the mining industry with patents”, showing a sharp increase in the number of correlated patent applications since 2005, which is a clear sign of the growth in investments in R&D and innovation made by these industries. This study also showed that patent applications dedicated to environmental improvements represented 12.6% of all patent applications filed in these fields from 1990 to 2015.
To stimulate and promote environmentally friendly technologies, that is, innovation developments focused on treating, mitigating, reducing, or preventing environmental deterioration, several patent offices around the world have implemented measures to expedite the processing of “green” patent applications. To encourage the offices to adopt such measures, WIPO developed the IPC Green Inventory to facilitate searches for patent information relating to Environmentally Sound Technologies (ESTs), as listed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This type of fast-track program to accelerate the examination of patent applications is accessible to all industry sectors, and the mining and metallurgical industries are making use of this program.
In Brazil, the fast-track program for eco-friendly technologies (“Green Patents”) started in 2012 as a pilot program and became a permanent service in 2016. Since 2012, more than 1,100 participation requests were filed in this program and the acceptance rate is about 80%. This fast-track modality is directed at patent applications related to “green” technologies in the following areas: Alternative energy (e.g. biofuels, wind energy, solar energy, etc.); Transport (e.g. electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, etc.); Energy conservation/saving (e.g. electric or thermal power storage, saving power consumption, etc.); Waste management (e.g. waste treatment, waste disposal, etc.); and Sustainable agriculture (e.g. reforestation techniques, irrigation techniques, alternative pesticides, etc.).
Green Mining and Metallurgy Patents in Brazil
It might come as a surprise to anyone who still sees these industries as uninventive or eco-unfriendly that among the requests accepted in fast-track programs in Brazil, patent applications for technologies related to metallurgy and materials rank fourth in the ranking of technologies most applied in the Green Patent Program. As an example of green technology in metallurgy, Brazilian patent BR102020012185-5 refers to a device, method, and system for heating a material using microwaves. This patent received the IPC classification C22B 1/00, which means that the technology is related to the production or refining of metals or pretreatment of raw materials in the metallurgy field, specifically for the preliminary treatment of ores or scrap. This patent was filed on June 17, 2020, and granted on March 2, 2021, i.e., the entire prosecution process took exactly 258 days—less than nine months.
Another example of investment in innovation development in green technologies by mining companies is Brazilian patent BR102020009786-5. This patent does not cover a technology directly related to the mining processes or products but refers to a method for prioritizing degraded areas of forest for reforestation, a sector directly affected by mining activities. This patent received the IPC classification A01G 23/00, which means that the technology is related to the forestry area, specifically for the treatment of growing trees or plants, for prolonging the life of plants. This patent was filed on May 15, 2020, and granted on August 17, 2021, i.e., the entire prosecution process took 15 months.
The Path Forward
Ecofriendly technologies in mining and metallurgical activities are a reality in Brazil. China is also investing in and promoting cleaner technologies in these fields. At the beginning of 2022, China issued a roadmap for high-quality development of the iron and steel industry, specifying that their iron and steel industry will be centering investments on a high level of artificial intelligence and automation, and “green, low-carbon, and sustainable” technologies by 2025.
From the above, we can see that the characterization of the metallurgy and mining industries as eco-unfriendly is misleading. Companies in these fields globally are investing in R&D and innovative technologies, making enterprises more sustainable. Moreover, the patent offices, including the Brazilian Patent and Trademark Office, are doing their part to guarantee an accessible and fast way to protect companies’ rights in these technologies. This union of efforts must be continued and shared more broadly, since it leads to more efficient and sustainable industries while assisting in the conservation of the environment.
Article published on IPWatchdog.