Thursday, August 9, 2012

Electricity From A Faucet — Nice Design, But Not A New Idea

Ryan Jungwoo Choi, a student in London, recently designed a fitting for a water pipe that converts the kinetic energy of flowing water in a water supply pipe to electricity used to power small, attached rechargeable light bulbs. A Google search on July 6, 2012 yields more than 6,200 hits for “Ryan Jongwoo Choi ES Pipe Waterwheel”. His web page describes the device:
“This product changes the power of flowing water into energy and makes it be used as light. This product devised to be used in the area of no electricity provided has been made to generate energy in life easily. The space where water flows is connected with pipes each other, when the above product is installed between each pipe, water is changed into energy by the principle of a waterwheel in the inside and accumulated in a bulb, and it can be used light in the place at desire after being detached.” [sic]
His illustration shows the use of small paddle-wheel turbines inside the fitting, presumably attached to small generators that charge the light bulbs.

Many of the web pages and blog articles I read about this device were written from a “this is completely new; it’s never been done before! How cool!” perspective. A search of patents and patent applications at the USPTO, WIPO (World International Patent Organization), and KPO (the Korean Patent Office — Choi is described as a “Korean innovator” on numerous web pages) fails to reveal any patent applications or patents to Mr. Choi. A phone call and follow-up email with staff at the International Design Society of America, from whom Choi’s design has received a 2012 IDEA award finalist ranking, indicated that his product is not presently distributed, and that there was no mention in the competition application filing of a patent application. Choi confirmed via email that he has not filed for a patent. Because his design has now been widely, and very publicly disclosed, it is unlikely that he could obtain a patent, at least in the US.

For all those who think this is new — not so fast.

Consider US patent US7956480, awarded Naoyuki Onodera and three co-inventors, all of Fukuoka, Japan, on June 7, 2011. The filing date of their patent application was November 1, 2008. Their patent, titled “Faucet generator” is considered by the USPTO to be a fluid-current motor falling within a broader group of prime-mover dynamo plant inventions. As such, it is closely related to other patents awarded under the  USPTO Green Technology Pilot Program. Claim 1 of the ’480 patent states:
"A generator for faucets, the generator comprising:
a case comprising a water inflow port and a water outflow port, wherein a water supply channel is formed inside the case;
a rotor vane disposed inside the water supply channel and configured to rotate by receiving a water flowing inside the water supply channel;
a magnet which is rotatable integrally with the rotor vane;
a bearing which supports a force that the rotor vane receives due to a water flow;
a rotation center shaft comprising one end supported by the bearing and the other end supported in a capped manner;
a coil which produces an electromotive force by a rotation of the magnet;
and a yoke comprising a base part arranged to surround the coil and a plurality of inductors which are spaced apart from each other and extending from the base part, wherein the coil is spaced apart from the magnet in an axial direction of a rotation center shaft and is disposed to face the magnet, the magnet is magnetized on an outer circumferential face thereof which intersects with a plane perpendicular to the rotation center shaft, and the inductors are disposed outside the case to face the outer circumferential face of the magnet."
Onodera et al.’s patent is illustrated in typical modern line drawing fashion.

Further, we link you to our February 23, 2012 post on “patentECO - Water on the Move”, which summarizes recent inventions on micro-hydro power generation (awarded to the Fairfax County Water Authority, the provider of municipal water to the International Design Society of America, headquartered in Herndon, VA).

But wait, there’s more.

US2436683, “Generator for Pipe Lines”, was issued on February 24, 1948 to Joseph H. Wood of Dallas, TX and assigned to Atlantic Pipe Line Company. Here is the first claim of that patent, issued 64 years ago (i.e., generating electricity from fluids flowing in a pipeline is not new):
"A device for generating electrical energy actuated by the flow of fluid through a pipeline, comprising
a housing adapted to form an integral stationary section of such line,
bearing means rigidly disposed axially of said housing,
a rotor positioned on said bearing means and adapted for operation while immersed in pipeline fluid,
permanent magnets affixed to the periphery of the rotor to create a magnetic field,
a stator surrounding the rotor and radially spaced therefrom,
an insulation cylinder interposed between the stator and the rotor and provided with an internal shoulder and an external shoulder at the opposite ends thereof,
and means for conducting electric current from the stator windings."
Note to designers, competition sponsors, and current or future inventors: check the prior art, particularly that described in published patents. And a corollary – don’t disclose your concept or design prior to filing a patent application if you hope to obtain patent protection for your intellectual property.