Monday, February 25, 2013

Renewables in the Sky

Renewable energy generation at the utility scale in the US was derived from multiple sources in 2011. Hydropower was the largest source (63% of renewable energy) followed by wind (23%). Solar power contributed less than one percent of renewable energy that year. Renewables as a whole represented 13% of the overall electricity generation mix, according to figures from the US Energy Information Administration. Renewable energy sources are well-known in the transportation industry (e.g., electric vehicles, hybrid gas-electric vehicles, natural gas vehicles, fuel cells, etc.). Efforts are underway to develop biofuels for the aviation industry.

Not to be forgotten are proponents of solar energy that hope to develop and demonstrate solar-powered airplanes.

The Invention

US Patent 8,002,216, “Solar powered wing vehicle using flywheels for energy storage,” was issued to inventor Darwin Kent Decker in August 2011. His patent is for “[a] solar powered air vehicle that can stay aloft for indefinite periods of time. The vehicle employs photovoltaic solar cells for primary power and high speed counter-rotating flywheels for energy storage and steering of the vehicle. The flywheels are placed in the wing to reduce airfoil drag. A control law provides three-axis stabilized control of the vehicle by controlling propeller pitch to vary the speeds of the flywheels.” His purpose for the solar flying wing clearly falls within the clean tech realm:

”With the threat of global warming and increasing gasoline prices, the interest in solar powered aircraft using photovoltaic solar cells has increased.”

Advantages of a solar-powered plane include:

”… it can stay aloft for indefinite periods that may extend into years of time similar to the operation of a satellite. Further, the solar powered aircraft can perform many of the present functions of a satellite without the cost of an expensive launch vehicle and without eventually creating orbital waste. The solar powered aircraft can return to earth for maintenance and be re-configured for a variety of missions. Typical applications include surveillance and tracking, homeland security, communications, oceanography, and meteorology. Many of these applications require operation at high altitudes greater than 60,000 feet where air breathing engine are less efficient.”

He notes that:

”A more appropriate energy storage device [i.e, than batteries or fuel cells] for use with long life solar powered airplanes is a high speed flywheel with a composite rotor and magnetic bearings. High speed flywheels provide superior energy per unit weight than batteries in applications where long cycle life is required. Composite rotors have demonstrated over 112,000 cycles in laboratory tests. Furthermore, flywheels provide a more efficient energy to thrust ratio for this application than batteries since batteries store energy chemically. Converting electrical energy to chemical energy, then back to electrical energy and then to rotational energy is inherently less efficient than converting the electrical energy directly to rotational energy in the flywheels and then using torque conversion to apply the energy directly to rotating propellers. Furthermore, flywheels produce moments and gyroscopic couples that can be used to steer the aircraft and eliminate or reduce the need for additional steering devices such as flaps, fuselage and a tail section that create additional drag on the vehicle. To date, flywheel energy storage has not been used in solar powered air vehicles.”

Note the similarity of the body structure of the ‘216 patent to that of the Northrup XB–35 flying wing from the 1940s.

Other Renewable Energy in Aircraft?

Decker proposes to use solar power. Various companies, including Amyris Biotechnologies (see our 1/12/12 post linked above), are developing aviation biofuels. What about wind power?

Interestingly, the earliest patent cited by Decker in the ‘216 patent is US 1,245,902, issued in November 1917 to Frank Gretsky of Coal Center, PA. His invention “Aeroplane motor” had the object of providing,

“a simple, practical and efficient attachment of strong, durable and comparatively inexpensive construction comprising a wind wheel adapted to be mounted on the propeller shaft and connected with the same by a train of gears so that the wind from the propeller, or resulting therefrom by the passage of the aeroplane through the air, will act on the wind wheel and assist in rotating the same and thereby effect a saving of fuel.

A further object of this invention is to provide a motor of this character adapted, in event of the internal combustion engine of the aeroplane becoming inoperative while the aeroplane is in the air, to serve as a wind motor for actuating the propeller and thereby rendering the aeroplane more easily handled and comparatively safe under such conditions.”

Gretsky was awarded a patent for mounting a windmill on an airplane to aid in, or wholly provide, its propulsion, and his intent in 1917 was to save fuel using wind power. Once again, we see that clean tech is not new, and our forebears were no less interested in energy savings, renewable energy and conservation than we are.

A Third-Generation Explorer Counts on The Sun

Bertrand Piccard is now a decade in to his Solar Impulse project that seeks to develop solar-powered planes. The Solar Impulse plane will be conducting test flights at NASA’s Moffett Field in May, and then is planned for a demo cross-country flight to Washington DC and New York. Piccard ultimately hopes to fly the plane around the world. The plane, a single-seater, has a 208-feet wingspan (equivalent to an Airbus A340), weighs a little more than 3,500 pounds, and is powered by four 10-horsepower electric motors. It will store electricity in lithium polymer batteries during the day for use during night flight. The plane’s upper wing surface and horizontal stabilizer house 11,628 solar cells.

These cells are manufactured by SunPower, one of the solar companies receiving patents under the USPTO Green Technology Pilot Program. Although this is a high-profile opportunity for SunPower, it has not been without its troubles in a turbulent solar market.

Piccard is the third generation of a family of noted explorers. His grandfather Auguste Piccard was a balloonist that established world records for high altitude balloon flight (a predecessor of Felix Baumgartner’s amazing flight last October on the anniversary of Chuck Yeager’s breaking the speed of sound). Piccard’s father, Jacques Piccard, was the first submariner (along with his dive companion Don Walsh) to reach the Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. They used the submersible Trieste to descend to 35,797 feet below the ocean’s surface on January 23, 1960. The Trieste was designed by Jacques’ father Auguste. The Challenger Deep was not re-visited by humans until March 2012 when the film-maker James Cameron reached the deepest point on earth in the Deepsea Challenger. Bertrand Piccard fulfilled Jules Vernes’ dream expressed in “Around the World in Eighty Days” when he co-piloted the first non-stop circumglobal balloon flight. Fascinating articles on all three men may be found in back issues of National Geographic magazine. A good article on Solar Impulse was recently published by Gigaom.

Clean technologies and renewable energy are being applied to aviation - but they have been for a long time.

End Note:
Gretsky’s windmill-on-a-plane, 1917. We’ve written it before, but the old patent drawings are art, unlike the sterile CAD depictions in today’s patents. It is not progress when aesthetics and beauty are abandoned.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Patent Resources -- US Patent Classification Glossary

US Patent Classification Glossary -- An alphabetical list of the definitions of terms of art that appear within the body of the US Patent Classification system class definitions.

The US Patent Classification (USPC) system includes definitions of key terms relevant to the definition of the types of inventions included in the classification.

USPTO uses these words to define what the specific term means in the context of the classifications. These are terms of art — a term that has a specialized meaning in a particular chemical, electrical, or mechanical scientific or engineering domain. Within the current US Patent Classification system a word can have a different meaning depending on the area of invention that it resides in. There are three different definitions for the word "Active" — one that pertains to pharmacology and biology; one that relates to plant growth; and a third that deals with an "active database." There are five definitions of "Acylic", three for "Address Data"; five for "Alkali Metals."

Way Better Patents' data wizards pulled all of the definitions from all of the classes that had definitions and assembled them into one alphabetical collection.  You can click the link and find the definition as it appears in the Class description.

The advantage of this presentation is that you can see what all three instances of the term "Address Data" mean and then click the link to the actual class definition of the one you think is most important to you and explore what it means.  It also helps people new to researching patents understand the impact of how different terms are used within different domains.  This becomes important when you are researching inventions where technology is converging - a medical device with a software component, or a smoke detecting cell phone for example.

The legend below will help you to navigate to the alphabetical list of terms.

| A | B | C-CL | CM-CZ | D-DIM | DIM-DZ | E | F | G | H | I | J-K | L | M-MET | MET-MZ | N | O | P-PHA | PHE-PON | POR-PZ | Q | R | S-SEPA | SEPO-SMT | SN-STEM | STEP-SZ | T-TOG | TON-TZ | U | V | W | X-Z |

Way Better Patents has a variety of patent information tools designed to make information about patents more accessible and easier to understand.   From time to time we post updates on these tools here.

(So far we haven't heard anything about how these in situ  (a patentesque word meaning in place) will be reflected in the nascent Cooperative Patent Classification system (CPC) but it's still good to understand the different meaning of different words when they are used within the definition of particular classes of art (groups of inventions) at USPTO.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fracking Fluids #1

There has been a recent flurry of media attention on Halliburton’s ‘CleanStim’ hydraulic fracturing (aka ‘fracking’, fracing’, or ‘hydrofracking’) fluid that the company says is derived from food industry products. Halliburton’s CleanStim fluid was actually released for use in 2010. What is the purpose of frack fluid? What’s in it?

Frack Fluid, Briefly

Hydraulic fracturing uses large volumes of extremely high pressure fluid injected deep below the ground to create fractures in the oil- or gas-bearing rock formation. These fractures are kept (propped) open with a “proppant” (or “propping agent”) - often a silica sand - allowing the hydrocarbons to flow from the formation to the well-bore. There have been many innovations in hydraulic fracturing.  These past posts spot light several inventions and the patents that support them..

The fracking fluid contains major groups of chemicals that serve specific functions needed to achieve successful and efficient recovery of the underground hydrocarbons. A gelling agent or hydration aid reduces friction of the overall mixture with the well-site piping and well-bore by modifying the viscosity of the fluid. Biocides are used to control bacteria growth, thereby maintaining the integrity of the fluid, and the health of the formation. A crosslinker increases the viscoelasticity of the fracturing fluid, thereby improving proppant transport and distribution within the fractures created in the formation. Crosslinkers create a chemical bond link between the polymer chains used in the gel. Breakers work in opposition to crosslinkers - they reduce viscoelasticity and viscosity by breaking the polymer chain links and are used in cleanup of the fracture system. Surfactants (think soap or detergent) enhance recovery of the hydrocarbons by reducing their surface tension with the formation rock.

(A more user friendly version of the fracking fluids tables below are available at Way Better Patents.)

The US Department of Energy reported several years ago that a typical fracking fluid is composed by volume of:

ConstituentPercent by volume
Water & sand99.51%
Friction reducer0.088%
Surfactant 0.085%
Potassium chloride 0.06%
Gelling agent 0.056%
Scale inhibitor0.043%
pH adjusting agent 0.011%
Breaker 0.01%
Iron control 0.004%
Corrosion inhibitor 0.002%
Biocide 0.001%

The exact blend of a frack fluid varies based on well-specific conditions, source water characteristics, and the vendor product used, and the individual treatments will use from 3–12 of the additives besides water and the propping agent. The purpose of the individual components is listed in the following table here.

Additive typeCommon Compound(s)PurposeCommon Use
Diluted Acid (15%)Hydrochloric acid or muriatic acidHelp dissolve minerals and initiate cracks in the rock Swimming pool chemical and cleaner
BiocideGlutaraldehydeEliminates bacteria in the water that produce corrosive byproducts Disinfectant; sterilize medical and dental equipment
BreakerAmmonium persulfateAllows a delayed break down of the gel polymer chains Bleaching agent in detergent and hair cosmetics, manufacture of household plastics
Corrosion InhibitorN,n-dimethyl formamidePrevents the corrosion of the pipe Used in pharmaceuticals, acrylic fibers, plastics
CrosslinkerBorate saltsMaintains fluid viscosity as temperature increases Laundry detergents, hand soaps, and cosmetics
Friction ReducerPolyacrylamide; Mineral oilMinimizes friction between the fluid and the pipeWater treatment, soil conditioner; Make-up remover, laxatives, and candy
GelGuar gum or hydroxyethyl celluloseThickens the water in order to suspend the sand Cosmetics, toothpaste, sauces, baked goods, ice cream
Iron Control Citric acidPrevents precipitation of metal oxidesFood additive, flavoring in food and beverages; Lemon Juice ~7% Citric Acid
KClPotassium chlorideCreates a brine carrier fluidLow sodium table salt substitute
Oxygen ScavengerAmmonium bisulfiteRemoves oxygen from the water to protect the pipe from corrosion Cosmetics, food and beverage processing, water treatment
pH Adjusting AgentSodium or potassium carbonateMaintains the effectiveness of other components, such as crosslinkersWashing soda, detergents, soap, water softener, glass and ceramics
ProppantSilica, quartz sandAllows the fractures to remain open so the gas can escapeDrinking water filtration, play sand, concrete, brick mortar
Scale InhibitorEthylene glycolPrevents scale deposits in the pipeAutomotive antifreeze, household cleansers, and de-icing agent
SurfactantIsopropanolUsed to increase the viscosity of the fracture fluidGlass cleaner, antiperspirant, and hair color

Source: Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer. USDOE, NETL. 2009.

How do the ingredients of Halliburton’s CleanStim fracking fluid compare to the generic list above?

CleanStim Constituent Common Uses
Enzyme Soybean Paste, Fruit Juices and Nectars, Laundry Detergent, Dishwasher Detergent, Toilet Cleaner, Industrial Pulp and Paper Processing Aid

Ethoxylated Sugar-Based Fatty Acid Ester Synthetic Food Flavoring Substance, Natural Baby Wipes, Baby Wash and Shampoo

Inorganic Acid Cheese, Alcoholic Beverages, Wheel Cleaner, Rust Dissolver, Dishwashing Detergent

Inorganic Salt Food Starch – Modified, Water Clarifier, Fish Tank Water Treatment

Maltodextrin Sweetener, Glaze and Icing Sugar, Coconut Milk and Coconut Cream, Shower Gel

Organic Acid Fruit Juice, Dishwasher Cleaner, All-Purpose Cleaner, Hand Soap

Organic Ester Liquid Egg Products, Food Resinous and Polymeric Coatings, Hairspray

Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil Confectionary Chocolate Coating, Hair Detangler, Body Lotion, Lip Liner, Soap, Lotion, Cream and Other Skin Care Formulations

Polysaccharide Polymer Canned Fish, Processed Cheese, Dairy-Based Desserts and Drinks, Beer, Toothpaste

Sulfonated Alcohol Egg White Solids, Marshmallows, Dishwashing Liquid, Home Dilutable Cleaner, Shampoo, Acne Scrub, Shaving Cream, Liquid Hand Soap

In part 2 we’ll look at some fracking fluid inventions from Halliburton and other companies that are intended to address concerns about potential environmental and human health effects of frack fluid constituents.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Taxpayer Subsidized Green Beer

Spent brewing grain. Source:

It's not St. Patrick’s Day yet but it's time to take a look at renewable energy, federal grants, and green beer.

A flurry of recent media attention was paid to the Alaskan Brewing Company (ABC), which has installed a new $1.8 million boiler that uses spent brewing grain as the fuel. The company is using the new boiler for its grain drying process, and for some of its process steam. ABC anticipates a 150,000 gallon annual savings in fuel oil by burning its spent grain.

Commentary on the project were uniformly lauding this as a new advance in combustion technology and brewing science. Like many green technologies being adopted under green technology agendas, the innovations aren't really new.  Consider these inventions, some of which are over 20 years old.

Process and apparatus for incinerating wet refuse

US patent 5,010,830 issued to Masahiro Asuka (Ube, Japan) and co-inventors in April 1991. Assigned to Japan’s Ube Industries, Inc., the patent provides,

"An apparatus to be applicable as a boiler for incinerating wet refuse in a combustion chamber with a fluid and heat medium of solid particles fluidized by an air feed to form a fluidized bed, with the aid of combustion of auxiliary fuel effected below the fluidized bed, is provided with additional one or more adjacent upper fluidized fed chambers in series to have the wet refuse dried and partially incinerated in the lower primary fluidized bed chamber with the balance of the refuse in a form of unburnt carbon particles being forced to fly upward into the additional upper fluidized bed chambers and be incinerated therein. Heat recovery is carried out from a topmost fluidized bed chamber."

The Background of the Invention states that the “term ‘wet refuse’ as used herein refers mainly to manufacturing waste expelled from food production plants; for example, waste materials from barley and hops used by breweries, so called ‘beer dregs’, or coffee grounds, orange pulp or tea leaves expelled from a canning plant involved. These plants also emit sludge and other waste products which fall into the category of ‘wet matter’, and these products are treated in a similar manner.  The generated heat energy is utilized in the same way as that of a boiler or the like.”

Waste incineration heat conversion system

Also from Japan, Toshiko Fukushima and co-inventors were granted US 5,678,420 in October 1997. The patent was assigned to Hitachi, Ltd. It provides for,

"A waste incineration heat conversion system has an incinerator for burning waste discharged from an installation, a heat recovering section for recovering the heat generated by combustion of the waste in the incinerator, a cold generating section for generating cold by utilizing the thus recovered heat, and a pipe line for conveying the thus generated cold to the installation so that the thus conveyed cold is utilized in the installation for a purpose."

The Summary of the Invention explains that the “combustible waste discharged from the installation is incinerated by the waste burning means of the system of the invention to generate heat which is directly or indirectly recovered by the heat recovering means as a thermal energy. รข€¦ The installation may be a brewing plant and the combustible waste may comprise combustible brewer’s grains and sludge discharged from the brewing plant.”

Process for thermally utilizing spent grains

Not to be outdone, Austrian inventor Leopold Werner Kepplinger and his team were granted US 6,167,636 in January 2001. Brau-Union Osterreich Aktiengesselschaft was assigned this patent, which claims,

"a process for thermally utilizing wet spent grains (1), the wet spent grains (1) are mechanically predried in a first drying stage (2), thermally dried in a further drying stage (4) and finally thermally utilized by burning or gasification. In order to be able to realize a process of this kind economically, the mechanically dehydrated spent grains (15) in the further drying stage (4) are heated by the aid of a smoke gas occurring within the energy system of a brewery."

The patent specification teaches the following:

"When producing beer, the wet spent grains, or brewing draff, which occur in large quantities, constitute a problem of disposal and utilization. About 20 kg of wet spent grains occur per hectoliter beer such that large-scale breweries have to dispose of, or utilize, hundreds of tons of spent grains per week."

Due to their composition, spent grains constitute a valuable fodder; it is, however, difficult to use the spent grains as a fodder in a cost-effective manner. The proper time for selling same as a fodder without problems is in winter–on the other hand, spent grains occur in larger quantities in summer than in winter. Moreover, spent grains cannot be stored without predrying. Drying is expensive, since only indirect drying is possible due to the demands set on fodder; which means poor heat transmission. Appropriate driers are expensive, involving high energy expenditures.

Apparatus and method for resource recovery from organic substance

Back to the Japanese. Hiromu Shishido and Norio Omoda obtained US 6,474,067 in November 2002; it is assigned to Chugoku Maintenance Co., Ltd. of Hiroshima, Japan. A more advanced invention:

"In a gasification furnace, a combustible gas is generated from an organic substance for gasification containing biomass of organic wastes or the like. An engine of a cogeneration is operated using this combustible gas to generate electricity by an electric generator driven by the engine, and hot water is generated by heating water in a radiator. The hot water is heated by a superheated steam generator of a heat storage type utilizing the electric power from the electric generator to generate superheated steam. Furthermore, a dry-distilled gas and a carbide are generated by dry-distilling and carbonizing an organic substance for carbonization containing biomass of organic wastes or the like with this superheated steam in the carbonization furnace. Thus, the resources are recovered from the organic substances containing biomass of organic wastes or the like by gasifying or carbonizing the organic substances with the superheated steam."

It can be applied to a wide range of organic fuels as described in claim 20:

"the organic substance for carbonization heated in the carbonization step is at least one selected from the group consisting of agricultural wastes including chaff and straw, livestock wastes including fowl droppings and droppings of pigs and cattle, forestry wastes including lumber from thinning, waste wood and bamboo, industrial wastes discharged in a food production process, a brew process or a lumber production process, domestic wastes including food refuse, domestic garbage and waste edible oil, organic resources, waste rubber materials and resins including fiber reinforced resins."

Method for thermal processing of a slurry and biomass

Not to be left out is German inventor Jurgen Buchert, whose patent US 7,799,960 was issued in September 2010; Buchert retained ownership. He envisions an electricity-producing system:

"In a method and apparatus for thermal processing of slurry, the slurry is combined with a bio-mass to produce a mixture which is then subjected to a cracking temperature in a receiving tank, thereby liquefying and allowing the mixture to catalytically undergo a cracking reaction. The cracking reaction which the liquefied mixture undergoes is continued in a mixer pump to thereby produce a reaction mixture. The reaction mixture is outgased in an intermediate tank to separate an outgased fraction from a non-outgased fraction. Subsequently, the outgased fraction is allowed to cool down, thereby producing fuel, while the non-outgased fraction is returned to the receiving tank and subjected again to the cracking temperature. Residual matter of the non-outgased fraction settles in the intermediate tank and is periodically removed."

Further, “the bio-mass may be biological waste material, e.g. rape residues or wood residues, e.g. sawdust, sugar beet residues, husks obtained during beer brewing or liquor production, animal meal, cellulose from paper production, press cake from feedstock production for animals, straw and the like, as well as other substances, such as various grains, corn, etc.”

Process for a disposal of waste solutions

Not only can breweries use their spent grain for boiler fuel, steam generation, or electricity generation, they can also build their facility with it according to Hugh Bogle and Charles Buchanan of Sarasota, FL and Nazareth, PA, respectively. Their patent, US 4,571,175, issued in February 1986 and was assigned to Roan Industries, Inc. They use spent grain in cement:

"A method of disposing of aqueous waste in which the aqueous waste is mixed with cement raw materials to form a slurry for the preparation of Portland cement or the like, for example in a rotary kiln. Prior to forming the slurry, the aqueous waste is treated to remove volatiles and other pollutants which vaporize when heated to a temperature below the boiling point of water. Such volatile materials are removed by contacting the aqueous waste with the effluent exhaust gases from the kiln itself and with the effluent air from the clinker cooler with suitable controls to avoid loss of the water component of the aqueous waste through boiling. The treated aqueous waste is then embodied in the slurry fed to the kiln and the pollutants in the water which can be combusted by the high temperature in the kiln are destroyed. The gaseous effluent which is cooled by contact with the aqueous waste may be discharged or further treated to recover the volatiles and other components which may be salvaged."

The aqueous waste? “One example of a waste solution is brewery waste which not only includes ethyl alcohol, but also is extremely odoriferous because of the yeast, malt and alcohol contained in it.”

Why Are US Tax Dollars Paying For This?

An Alaskan Brewing Company executive was quoted as saying that “Reducing our energy use makes good business sense” If it makes good business sense, why do you need a federal grant to the tune of $450,000?

It's unclear why, given current economic conditions and the fact that the Alaskan Brewing Company is achieving a significant cost savings why USDA is funding this type of a project.
The web page for USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program explains,

"REAP creates opportunities for economic development for rural businesses by supporting renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, via loan guarantees and grants. The program provides assistance to qualified applicants to finance renewable energy (renewable biomass, anaerobic digesters, geothermal for electric generation, geothermal for direct use, hydroelectric (30 megawatts or less), hydrogen, small and large wind, small and large solar and ocean (including tidal, wave, current, and thermal) and energy efficiency projects. It expands the existing private credit structure by providing a credit enhancement via a loan guarantee."

It's surprising that this technology hasn't been more widely adopted and that it takes federal funding to get inventions like these into production.  The question is what will the taxpayers return in investment be.

These technologies can be found in Way Better Patents’  Energy Index.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Author Obfuscation in the Patentsphere

The Winter 2013 edition of Journal of Economic Perspectives features an article called , "Of Smart Phone Wars and Software Patents" written by Stuart Graham and Saurabh Vishnubhakat.

According to the abstract, "Principally, the article highlights how the US Patent Office acts responsibly when it engages constructively with principled criticisms and calls for reform as it has during the passage and now implementation of the landmark Leahy-Smith America Invents Act of 2011."

Fundamentally this is an articles designed to show that software patents aren't handled any differently at USPTO than other patents.  The authors select a group of patent classifications to define software patents and use the behavior of the patents in comparison with other non-software patents to illustrate that the USPTO outcomes are similar.

(We could make the argument that if we shifted the Classes included in the paper here and there, that the outcome might be different.  It is also curious that after the big build up to the new Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) system by USPTO, that the authors didn't elect to use the new classifications in their article.  But we digress.)

But there is something very curious here.  Who are the authors?

The articles bibliographic information about the authors says,

"Stuart J. H. Graham is an Expert Advisor to the US Patent and Trademark Office.  He is an Assistant Professor, Scheller College of Busines, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia and is an attorney licensed in the State of New York.  Saurabh Vishnubhakat is an Expert Advisor at the US Patent and Trademark Office.  He is an Adjunct Professor at the Norther Virginia Community College, Alexandria, Virginia and is licensed in the State of Illinois."

Expert Advisors to the USPTO and academics.  Well, not quite.

Stuart Graham is the Chief Economist at USPTO.   Or as noted on the USPTO website, "The USPTO established the Office of the Chief Economist (OCE) in March 2010, with the appointment of Dr. Stuart Graham as its first Chief Economist.  The Chief Economist is responsible for advising the Under Secretary and the Administrator for External Affairs on the economic implications of policies and programs affecting the United States intellectual property system.  The Chief Economist initiates and oversees groundbreaking economic analysis in the field on the topics of intellectual property protection and enforcement, with the object of fulfilling the USPTO’s statutory obligation to provide the President (through the Secretary of Commerce) and the Administration with advice on intellectual property policy."  Dr. Graham has a considerable research agenda at USPTO and is the public fact of many of the Office's outreach efforts including encouraging colleagues in the patent research world to comment on issues like the impact of the lack of transparency on patent assignees and the real person of interest in patent litigation.

Mr. Vishnubhakat, another Expert Advisor at USPTO, works in the Office of the Chief Economist.  He works for Mr. Graham.  According to public, "Saurabh Vishnubhakat advises the USPTO's Chief Economist and senior management on a range of issues including genetic patenting, IP assignment, international trademark examination, and technology standards. ...As part of the USPTO's implementation team for the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, Saurabh helps administer a number of regulatory reforms, studies, and reports to Congress."

Mr. Vishnubhakat was an active participant in USPTO's efforts to deal with the problems associated with hiding the real interests in patents and perhaps more importantly, patent litigation and the Roundtable on Proposed Requirements for Real-Party-in-Interest Information Throughout Application Pendency and Patent Term published in the Federal Register.  USPTO sought comments on means for collecting and dissemination information about who the real owner of the patent applications and patents  and how the USPTO what USPTO can do to collect more timely and accurate patent assignment information during patent prosecution and during it's term.  He was the conduit through which organizations submitted comments to USPTO.  (Here's an example.)

So what's going on here?  Mr. Graham and Mr. Vishnubhakat both work for USPTO.  Neither is simply an Expert Advisor doing some work at USPTO as a break from academia.  Both are active participants in research and analysis and are directly involved in policy strategy and formulation and the implementation of the new Leahy-Smith America Invents Act.  Why didn't the bios on the article reflect that?  Why did the editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives not require a more accurate bio?

So the guys at USPTO who are working on seeking input on changing the rules of the game with respect to hiding the real-person-in-interest in patents are obfuscating their relationship with USPTO in academic articles.

Obfuscation must be contagious in the patentsphere.  A little transparency might be in order here.

(Oh - and the whole cotton gin, sewing machine, laser discussion gets a little hackneyed when you consider that the level of complexity in the patent system hadn't reached today's breathtaking complexity when these inventors were duking it out.  Just look at the size of the footnote needed to define the universe of software patents.)

Update - 4:47pm

This afternoon we reached out to the Editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (JEP) on their editorial policy with respect to the biographical information of their contributors.

Ms. Ann Norman Assistant Editor, JEP relayed the following, "Stuart Graham was Chief Economist at USPTO and now is an Expert Advisor. That status changed only at the last minute, apparently, at the last stages of preparing to send this paper for printing…

"So the authors did disclose their potential conflicts of interest to us, and it was/is an editorial decision as to whether these conflicts were significant enough to post online. We can, in-fact still post the full disclosure statements with the paper, though of course it is too late to mention in the paper itself that the online disclosure statement exists."

Ms. Norman graciously provided the full disclosures statements for both each author which confirm the status change.

We appreciate the timely response to our inquiry.  We still believe it is important to the readers of articles about patents that the affiliations of the authors are known.  We believe information transparency is an important element in fixing the perception that the patent system is broken.  We don't believe it's broke we believe that the system needs more transparency.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Deja Vu - Blimps, Aerostats and Airships

Lighter-than-air (LTA) aircraft are currently in the news with the successful “first-float” maneuver completed for the prototype Aeroscraft designed by Worldwide Aeros CEO, Founder, and Chief Engineer Igor Pasternak. The Aeroscraft uses a pressurized helium system to achieve buoyancy. Its development has been supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US Defense Department Defiance’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Pasternak received a US design patent, D663,255, “Rigid body airship,” in July 2012.

(On the accompanying patent drawing, 100 is the airship, which includes a shell (102), a strake (104), and a tail (106). A strake is an aerodynamic surface mounted on the fuselage of an aircraft to improve airflow and flight characteristics.)

Rather than relying on helium for buoyancy, the Boeing Company (NYSE: BA) envisioned a system in which both a lighter-than-air gas and heated air would be used in concert. Issued US Patent 8,033,497 in October 2011 for “Hybrid thermal airship,” inventors David Kwok and co-inventors designed,

"[a]n airship [that] comprises a shell, a gas storage system, an air storage system, a cargo storage system, a heating system, and a propulsion system. The shell encompasses a volume. The gas storage system is located within the volume, wherein the gas storage system is capable of storing a lighter than air gas. The air storage system is located within the volume, wherein the air storage system is capable of storing heated air. The heating system is capable of heating air. The propulsion system is capable of propelling the shell during flight."

The airship’s design would allow it to operate at an altitude of about 30,000 feet above sea level, and it was intended to provide cargo transportation. The inventors stated that “cargo is placed into the cargo storage system while a negative buoyancy is present [i.e., when the airship is on the ground]. After the cargo has been placed into the cargo storage system, the temperature of the stored air in the gas storage system is changed to create a variable buoyancy.

Further, “[i]t is also a general goal to reduce the drag force of airships so that less fuel is burned. Alternatively, it is desirable to reduce drag so that the airship may fly faster with the same fuel consumption.” The Boeing hybrid thermal airship can be considered clean tech within the Way Better Patents  Transportation Index.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Future Aerostat and Airship Investment Decisions Drive Oversight and Coordination Needs, issued in October 2012 identified 15 key aerostat and airship efforts that were underway or had been initiated since 2007, and the Department of Defense (DOD) had or has primary responsibility for all of these efforts.  Most of the aerostat and airship efforts have been fielded or completed, and are intended to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support. The estimated total funding of these efforts was almost $7 billion from fiscal years 2007 through 2012.  Most of the total estimated airship investment from fiscal years 2007 to 2012—approximately $1.1 billion—consists of research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) costs.  A significant investment that should yield many new inventions.

(Airships,  which use a lifting gas—most commonly helium, are manned or unmanned, self-propelled vehicles that have directional control. Aerostats are the airship's tethered siblings.)

News reports a little over a month before the patent issued said that Boeing was no longer working on the airship. The US Air Force and other have dramatically reduced spending on airship and aerostat development. Perhaps another company will purchase or license the Boeing patent, and this clean tech will be brought to market.

Blimps, aerostats, and airships are likely to make another appearance in the future not unlike the other clean technology like the windmill that have returned to the fore.  In any event, innovative approaches to solving problems incorporating aspects of clean tech continue to be brought forth by the nation’s inventors.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Capitalism at Work

On January 7, 2013 Acuity Brands, Inc. (NYSE: AYI), a producer of energy-efficient lighting and controls, announced the acquisition of assets of Adura Technologies, Inc., which developed wireless controls and energy management solutions.  Adura is a university spin-out of the University of California, Berkeley Center for the Built Environment.

Acuity Brands is, "one of the world’s leading providers of lighting solutions for both indoor and outdoor applications. With fiscal year 2012 net sales of over $1.9 billion, Acuity Brands employs approximately 6,000 associates and is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia with operations throughout North America, and in Europe and Asia. The company’s lighting solutions are sold under various brands, including Lithonia Lighting®, Holophane®, Peerless®, Gotham®, Mark Architectural Lighting(TM), Winona® Lighting, Healthcare Lighting®, Hydrel®, American Electric Lighting®, Carandini®, Antique Street Lamps(TM), Tersen®, Sunoptics®, Sensor Switch®, Lighting Control & Design(TM), Synergy® Lighting Controls, Pathway Connectivity(TM), Dark to Light®, ROAM®, RELOC® Wiring Solutions, and Acculamp®."  Audura's wireless energy management inventions look like a good addition to Acuity Brand's portfolio and may help accelerate wider adoption of LED and OLED solutions.

Adura holds four US patents 7,839,017; 7,925,384; 8,275,471; 8,364,325, with several granted from the US Patent and Trademark Office’s Green Technology Pilot Program. You can learn more about wireless lighting controls and how it was used at two UC Berkeley libraries here.

Audura is a Young Gun - a new and emerging entrepreneurial firms that bring new business models, new products, and new ideas to market. On the innovation, invention, and intellectual property front, Young Guns are the firms to watch. They are where talent scouts, corporate merger & acquisitions pros should look for opportunities for future growth; where investors, venture capitalists, economic and real estate developers looking to attract talent to their cities can find the best scientists, innovators and researchers. Young Guns are the engines of new economic growth and new markets.

Young Guns pursue patents to protect their innovations and product pipeline, attract investors, and accelerate market entry and expansion.  It looks like Audura has the qualities sought by the designers of the Green Tech Pilot Program - good technology, patents granted quickly enough to protect markets more strongly than patent applications along, and commercialization of research done as part of university/industry partnerships.

Way Better Patents’ Green Tech Pilot Program Discovery and Analysis Report provides an in-depth review of technology and companies earning patents under the accelerated examination program for "economically important technology".  It is a valuable shopping list for investors looking to expand their green technology investments.

Friday, February 8, 2013

NIMBY on Uranium Mining

The Commonwealth of Virginia has been considering removing a long-standing ban on uranium mining. Virginia Uranium, Inc. had proposed mining the largest undeveloped US uranium deposit, the Coles Hill deposit, located in Pittsylvania County in the south-central area of the Commonwealth. It is estimated to contain about 119 million pounds of uranium oxide and be worth more than $7 billion. The mine would have created more than 300 jobs in an economically struggling area of the state. We wrote earlier about new technology that might be applied to reduce environmental risks that might arise from mining operations.

On January 31, 2013, State Senator John Watkins, sponsor of a bill to require state agencies to write regulations for uranium mining, removed his bill from consideration by the Virginia Senate Agriculture and Natural Resource Committee. Had those regulations been written and approved (a long, uncertain, and fractious process in and of itself) the mining ban would effectively have been lifted at some time in the future. Although a companion bill is in committee in the House of Delegates, Senator Watkins’ action yesterday effectively ends the prospect of uranium mining in Virginia, at least for the foreseeable future.

Senator Watkins issued a press release from which we quote:

"[Uranium mining] would be the beginning of an entirely new era in Virginia in terms of research and development in a field to which we are already committed. … there is a lack of understanding regarding the world marketplace and the availability of uranium for use as nuclear fuel. Undeniably, nuclear power production is the cleanest system that we have developed to date that is capable of producing energy at a scale that not only is needed in Virginia but certainly across our nation. The emotion and fear that some have inspired on this subject have, for now at least, overcome the science and the engineering that we have worked so hard in Virginia to elevate in our educational systems and in our research facilities.

"For those of you who have promoted offshore drilling-and I support it with you-the energy that the Coles Hill uranium deposit would supply is 22 times greater than all of Virginia’s offshore oil reserves combined.

"And while most people recognize that nuclear power is absolutely vital for America’s and Virginia’s future, few seem to understand that our country now depends on foreign suppliers for more than 90 percent of the uranium we use.’’

Opposition groups (one of which is ironically named ‘Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia’) raised issues such as risks of surface and groundwater contamination, health effects to mine workers, and release of toxins and radioactivity. It is truly curious that groups that purport to embrace ‘progress’ often, in fact, are against true progress and the application of technological innovations that can reduce the risks they claim to be ‘concerned’ about.

As an example of this mind-set, an AP reporter mentioned a number of studies on the proposed mining, including one by the National Research Council, and included the following stunning statement that appears to reflect his personal bias in an article published on January 31:

"None of the studies has offered absolute assurances that mining and milling can be done risk-free.’’

If they were credible, objective studies then they would not have included a) ‘absolute assurance’; and b) estimates of 0% probability of risk.

No human activities are without risk of injury or death - there is always risk. The job of the planners, engineers, and technologists involved in a project such as the proposed Coles Hill mining is to identify and reduce risks to acceptable levels.

If we as a society are now at the point where the standard (at least in the reporter’s mind, but don’t forget, reporters influence the thinking and understanding of their readers.) for activities, in this case resource extraction, is zero risk, we are done.

The reporter, and others ‘concerned’ about potential risks from uranium mining might consider the comparative risk of their own daily activities, as reported in 2007 by the New York Times:

RiskAnnual DeathsLifetime Risk
Heart disease652,4861 in 5
Cancer 553,8881 in 7
Stroke 150,0741 in 24
Hospital infections99,0001 in 38
Flu59,6641 in 63
Car accidents 44,7571 in 84
Suicide31,4841 in 119
Accidental poisoning19,4561 in 193
MRSA (drug resistant bacteria)19,0001 in 197
Falls 17,229 1 in 218
Drowning3,3061 in 1,134
Bike accident7621 in 4,919
Air/space accident 7421 in 5,051
Excessive cold 620 1 in 6,045
Sun/heat exposure2731 in 13,729
Shark attack621 in 60,453
Lightning 471 in 79,746
Train crash 241 in 156,169
Fireworks111 in 340,733

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Patentista On Patent Privateers

Today's Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and others reported on the latest volley in the battle between Cisco Systems Inc. and the latest PAE to come to the fore - Innovatio IP Ventures LLC.  In a nutshell, Cicso accused Innovatio of racketeering and extortion for sending threatening licensing demand letters to 8,000 coffee chains, hotels, and other retailers that use Cisco, Netgear, or Motorola Solutions WiFi equipment. The list of threatening letter recipients is a veritable Who's Who in the hospitality, coffee, and retail business - Hyatt Corp, Marriott Hotels, Wyndam Hotels, Ramada, Best Western, Panera, Caribou, and many more.  The Patentista called to point out that this is par for the course in the patent troll business and that this might actually be a privateering deal.

So the folks who bought equipment from Cisco so their customers can read email while drinking a Latte are being asked to cough up some money because they are infringing Innovatio's patents.  If the folks who bought the WiFi equipment from Cisco are infringing the patents then the next group of infringers are the users of the WiFi equipment including the denizens of Laptopisan and those surfing the net while in their PJs at home. (According to Matthew McAndrews the lead counsel for Innovatio, “Innovatio has made a strategic and business judgment at this stage that it doesn’t intend to pursue [lawsuits on the basis of] residential use of WiFi,”

Cisco claimed Innovatio's practices were extortion but the Innovatio crew came back and said it was their right to aggressively pursue infringers of their legally issued patents.  Cisco wanted to make the whole thing go away because of the bad behavior on the part of Innovatio.  The Judge in the case said, "not so fast."

Judge Holderman ruled that Innovatio had the right to petition any department of the government including the court system and that protection extends to licensing demands made before a lawsuit.  So Innovatio wasn't engaging in racketeering by demanding licenses from these companies as a lead up to filing lawsuits.  It was close but not quite there...yet.  That first amendment Constitution thing came first.

The Patentista recalled that Niro, Haller & Niro, the law firm representing Innovatio, and Cisco have a long history recalling the earlier Troll Tracker blog matter where Niro put out a bounty looking for the identity of the blogger responsible for Troll Tracker only to find out that he was the head of IP for Cisco.  That was back in the early days of the troll business when things seemed a lot simpler.

The Patentista noted how easy it is with a little customer relationship management software, a good solid database of addresses, and several reams of high quality paper from Staples to crank out the demand letters pretty quickly and get the ball rolling.  Then consider that the settlement price of between $2,300 and $5,000 per defendant is about the price of the starter retainer and a couple of phone calls to your attorney when you get the letter so why not just pay up and move on.  It's a business model with very low start up costs and big rewards.  It may really be targeted at getting Cisco to pay up but when you go after the little guys first it looks like extortion.  (Going after the end customers first to get the attention of a product provider is a tactic straight from the Patent Troll 101 play book.)

It's also about those agreements that people sign.  They usually say that if you get hit with a patent lawsuit on the products you buy that you need to let the manufacturer of the product know and take the lead in the matter and assist in the defense.  This is a seemingly innocuous paragraph when you sign (click these days) that nobody pays much attention to until the package with the demand letter on nice stationary arrives.  Assisting in the defense could be costly however righteous it might be.  Paying up and being indemnified against future action for a $2,300 might be a better deal.

Either way, if you figure Innovatio sent 8,000 demand letters at $5,000 a piece to settle, Innovatio can pull in about $40,000,000 at the high end (zeros are for effect.)  Even if you only get half, that's $20M.  And who cares if the firms paying the money are being abused or are disgruntled and unhappy.  You have the money and can move on to your next victim.  Who cares if more people hate the patent system.  It's a nice pay day.

The Patentista suspects that this might be a privateering deal.  Most of the patents were transferred from Broadcom to Innovatio.  Maybe they commissioned Innovatio as their privateer to wring the last bit of revenue from these assets.

What you ask is a patent privateer?  It's a new species of patent monetizer.  The term patent privateer is used to describe special purpose business entities set up by large practicing entities, usually surreptitiously, for the sole purpose of monetizing the patent assets.  There are of lots of reasons why the patent privateer business model is attractive.  Here are a few.

It's easier to have someone else litigate your patents then to do it yourself.

It keeps the funds allocated for patent monetization separate from traditional operating expenses.

It creates plausible deniability in a marketplace where patent litigation seems to violate the marketplace's sense of fair play or when moving against a competitor directly is unsavory.

It creates an uncorrelated asset - an asset not directly tied to the price of a firm's stock - sometimes when the risk associated with the likelihood of success is low or unknown an uncorrelated asset is good.  It becomes a correlated asset if thing go well and there are nice revenue flows back into the practicing entity (especially when such a flow of cash is beneficial for quarterly results reporting.)

It separates corporate assets of the practicing entity and the annoying cross-licensing discussion separate from the monetization piece by eliminating counter suits and all that nasty patent licensing stuff that goes on when one practicing entity has to deal with another.  It can also be helpful by annoying licensing agreements in the first place when you are no longer a big player in the marketplace where the patents apply.

It lets the monetizing entity hide in plain sight during the cease and desist early action phase of the program until they hit a serious adversary who knows to ask the court to determine the material ownership of the entity - basically who owns the LLC and where the funds to support the operation are coming from.  It gives cover until someone gets a patent attorney smart enough to figure out who is behind the PAE.

And it provides better visuals.  The privateer pirate model with its skull and crossbones has such better optics than the drooling patent troll.  Or as Mr McAndrews, the lead counsel for Innovatio pointed out, theirs is a systematic campaign.  "This is not a seat of the pants, fly-by-night shakedown."  (It's a more sophisticated shakedown.)

Maybe Broadcom Corporation wanted to squeeze the last bit of revenue out of the patents and decided to let Innovatio take a shot at it.  Either way the decision in favor of Innovatio means that the bulk mailing of demand letters and the patent troll business model is alive and well and will live to fight another day.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

All of the Above Energy, Part 2

The February 4 post looked  at the combustion technology to have been used at the now-terminated Las Brisas power plant in Corpus christi, TX, and provided some examples of clean tech patents in the realm of carbon trading and offsets, carbon sequestration, and carbon emissions reduction that might have been applied at Las Brisas. In this post, we continue with a summary of recent inventions in the fields of toxic emissions reduction and reducing fine particulate matter emissions from power plants.

Toxic Emissions Reduction

One of the substances potentially to be emitted from the Las Brisas plant was mercury. US Patent 7,862,725, “Method for mercury capture from fluid streams,” was granted to David Mazyck and co-inventors in January 2011. The patent was assigned to the University of Florida Research Foundation Incorporated. It provides a “method for removing mercury from a fluid stream includes the steps of providing a porous composite material comprising a substrate and a plurality of catalyst and/or photocatalyst particles, and contacting substrate with a fluid stream. The porous composite material adsorbs and/or then oxidizes or reduces metallic species including elemental mercury. A fossil fuel fired power plant can include an emission control device comprising the porous composite material to filter flue gas to and thereby minimize mercury emissions into the environment.”

Reducing Fine Particulates

USEPA regulations limit the amount of fine particulate matter than can be emitted from stationary sources including power plants. In 1997 EPA revised the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to drop the particulate diameter to be controlled from 10 microns to 2.5 microns (PM2.5). In 2006 the allowable concentration that could be released was cut almost in half from 65 to 35 micrograms per cubic meter. For reference, a strand of human hair is on average about 100 microns, thus the particulate matter regulations target an object 40 times smaller than the diameter of human hair. At a concentration of 35 micrograms per cubic meter, it would take 1,295,978,200 cubic meters to obtain one pound of PM2.5. This is equivalent to the volume enclosed by NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. Times 354.

Particulate matter is generally removed from power plant flue gas by either electrostatic precipitators (ESPs) and/or fabric filters (‘baghouses’). Most ESPs are dry, but in some settings wet ESPs are needed. ESPs use high-voltage fields to apply electric charges to the particles moving through the field. The charged particles then move toward a collection surface of opposite charge, where they accumulate and are then collected for disposal. ESPs were originally used in the early 1900s.

US Patent 7,776,141 was granted to Song Wu and co-inventors in August 2010. “Methods and apparatus for performing flue gas pollution control and/or energy recovery,” assigned to Hitachi Power Systems America, Ltd., provides methods and apparatus for pollution control for use in a coal power plant. “Ash is collected and injected into the flue gas stream at a location upstream of a cooling module. The ash acts as an absorbent and/or reactant material onto which condensate may condense. By re-introducing ash to keep the condensation forming wet areas within the system, lower cost materials which are less corrosion resistant than needed for wet operating conditions can be used. Mercury recovery and SO3 removal is facilitated by the cooling process and re-introduction of collected ash. Activated carbon and/or an alkali absorbent material may be added. Use of a dry ESP and/or fabric filter as opposed to a wet ESP for particulate collection leads to cost benefits. Energy recovered by the cooling of the flue gas may be re-used to heat turbine condensate leading to improved energy efficiency.” Thus this invention not only reduces particulate matter but also sulfur and mercury emissions.

A Promise Kept

In November 2008, candidate Obama in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle said:

"The only thing I’ve said with respect to coal, I haven’t been some coal booster. What I have said is that for us to take coal off the table as a (sic) ideological matter as opposed to saying if technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it."

So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can.

It’s just that it will bankrupt them.

Clean Tech for Fossil Fuel Power Plants?

There is a tremendous amount. The equipment and methods to be derived from the patents listed here and in part 1 may or may not have been applicable to Las Brisas – that would require detailed engineering evaluations performed during plant design. However, technological innovations are available to apply at all power plants in the US. In many cases, top-down regulatory strictures make installing them cost prohibitive. In other cases, the change in the past few years regarding fuel costs (e.g., dramatically lower natural gas prices) lead plant owners to decide upon plant retirement or, sometimes, reconstruction to allow use of an entirely different fuel. One would think that for all the talk of using innovation, clean tech, protecting American jobs, and taking an ‘all of the above’ approach, we might see fewer instances of plants like Las Brisas being forced into oblivion.


The Daily Caller reports that,

"The energy company Duke Energy, which has close ties to President Barack Obama’s administration and is involved with the pro-Obama political operation Organizing for Action, completed two new expansive wind power projects this month in the same region near Corpus Cristi, Texas where a major job-creating coal power project was recently disbanded."

Duke Energy announced the completion of the Los Vientos I and Los Vientos II wind projects on January 14.

The Los Vientos projects are located “approximately 120 miles south of Corpus Christi and 20 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico,” according to a 2011 Duke press release.

The largest-ever Duke wind construction projects, they add 402 MW of intermittent power to the grid, less than one-third of Las Brisas’ baseload generation capacity.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Post on IPWatchdog

An article on Way Better Patents' USPTO Green Technology Pilot Program Discovery and Analysis Report and our findings appeared on Gene Quinn's IPWatchdog blog  yesterday.  Thanks to Gene for spreading the word on our analysis of the USPTO Green Technology Pilot Program and the interesting outcome on this accelerated examination initiative.

As noted in the post, the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act enables the Director of USPTO to designate "economically important" technology for accelerated examination without having to pay the usual accelerated fees with the goal being to accelerate the commercialization of these inventions.  The Green Tech report and analysis provides IP strategists, patent policy researchers, and patent prosecution pros with insight into the outcomes of such a program, who participated, and the inventions that were protected faster.  Green technology is a strong candidate for continued accelerated examination in light of the Obama Administration's renewed focus on climate change and alternative energy.  We continue to report on the balance of the patents accepted under the program as they move through the prosecution process.

You can learn more about the USPTO Green Tech Pilot Program and the report here.

Monday, February 4, 2013

All of the Above Energy, except for …


Chase Power Development, LLC of Houston, TX has announced that it is ceasing operations. The company was attempting to permit and build the Las Brisas power plant in Corpus Christi, TX. Las Brisas, anticipated to cost $3 billion and create 1,300 direct and 2,600 indirect jobs, was a planned 1,320 megawatt plant with circulating fluidized bed boilers that would use petroleum coke as its primary fuel source. The petroleum coke was to be obtained from three local refineries. Chase Power CEO Dave Freysinger was quoted in the Corpus Christi Caller as saying that the project succumbed to overwhelming USEPA regulations on carbon-based fuel permitting requirements and emission standards for petroleum coke. Opponents of the plant claimed it would emit toxic chemicals and fine particles into the air.

The Technology

Las Brisas was to have incorporated circulating fluidized bed combustion technology, widely used in the electricity generation industry. The following description from the Las Brisas Energy Center web page explains the process depicted in the accompanying flow diagram:

Fuel Input

Fuel and limestone are fed into the combustion chamber of the boiler while air (primary and secondary) is blown in to “fluidize” the mixture. The fluidized mixture burns at a relatively low temperature and produces heat. The limestone absorbs sulfur dioxide (SO2), and the low-burning temperature limits the formation of nitrogen oxide (NOX) – two gases associated with the combustion of solid fuels.

CFB Boiler

Heat from the combustion process boils the water in the water tubes turning it into high-energy steam. Ammonia is injected into the boiler outlet to further reduce (NOX) emissions.

Cyclone Collector

The cyclone is used to return ash and unburned fuel to the combustion chamber for re-burning, making the process more efficient.

State-of-the-Art Air Quality Control System

After combustion, lime is injected into the “polishing scrubber” to capture more of the (SO2). A “baghouse” (particulate control device) collects dust particles (particulate matter) that escape during the combustion process. Activated Carbon Injection (ACI) will be installed upstream of the fabric filter to enhance the removal of mercury and HAP’s [i.e., Hazardous Air Pollutants].

Steam Turbine

The high-pressure steam spins the turbine connected to the generator, which converts mechanical energy into electricity.

Transmission Lines

The electricity produced from the steam turbine/generator is routed through substations along transmission lines and delivered to distribution systems for customer use.

All of the Above Energy?

The White House website links to a document titled “Obama Administration Record on an All-of-the-Above Energy Strategy.” The document states:

The President is committed to an all-of-the-above strategy that expands production of American energy resources, like oil and natural gas; increases energy efficiency to save families and businesses money at the pump; and develops cleaner, alternative fuels to reduce our oil dependence.

The document also says that the US “need[s] to take control of our own energy future by out-innovating and outbuilding our global competitors.”

What are some recent innovations that might have applied to the now-defunct Las Brisas plant, which it would seem, due to its underlying oil-based fuel, might have been part of the all of the above energy strategy?

Petroleum Coke

Petroleum coke, according to the US Energy Information Administration, is a coal-like material produced as part of the petroleum distillation process. “Petroleum coke has uses in the electric power and industrial sectors, as fuel inputs or a manufacturing raw material used to produce electrodes for the steel and aluminum industries. In 2011, the refining industry supplied 132 million barrels of petroleum coke with most of it subsequently consumed as fuel.”

US Patent 7,901,473, “Pre-burning, dry process methodology and systems for enhancing solid fuel properties,” was granted to CoalTek, Inc. (Tucker, GA) in March 2011. Inventors Jerry Weinberg and colleagues developed “a dry electromagnetic process technology … that can be controlled and monitored to selectively alter and enhance solid fuel properties for the application in question. Specific changes include altering the mechanical structure and chemical composition of solid fuels such as coal, coal coke or petroleum coke, increasing the BTU/lb to optimum levels, decreasing all forms of sulfur, and decreasing ash, while maintaining the BTU/lb of the fuels. A new family of solid fuel designer coals not found in nature can be produced via these methods and apparatus.”

Their invention not only increases the heat content (Btu/lb) of the fuel, but also decreases sulfur (and hence, sulfur dioxide emissions) and ash (reducing the amounts of fly and bottom ash that must be removed from the flue gas or boilers and subsequently disposed of, and the amounts of fine particulate matter produced. More on this in a future post.)

Carbon Emissions Trading & Offsets, Sequestration, and Reduction

This is an active area of innovation and patenting. In the last five years the following inventions (and there are many more in this area) have been approved by the US Patent Office.

Carbon Trading & Offsets

Bank of America makes it easy for commercial entities to do their part to help stop global warming. US Patent 8,214,258, “Systems, methods and computer program products for a comprehensive environmental benefit program associated with a commercial credit card,” issued in July 2012 to Jeffrey Pauly and David Vogel. “Systems, methods, and computer program products are provided for a comprehensive environmental benefit program associated with purchases made by a corporate entity and, more specifically, purchases associated with a commercial credit card. According to embodiments herein disclosed, environmental impact data, such as ecological or carbon footprint data may be determined based on the purchases made by a commercial entity using the commercial credit card and, in some embodiments, purchases made through other purchasing channels. In addition, environmental advisory data, such as suggestions for environmental improvements, environmental educational information or the like may be determined based on the purchases. Additionally, environmental rebates, such as carbon offsets may be determined based on the purchases/purchase amounts and customized based on commercial entity preferences.”

This is a business method patent using ‘computer program products’ (i.e., software). Is this patent good because it helps save the planet? Is it bad because it is owned by a large corporation? Or bad because it’s a business method patent and some folks have the notion that they shouldn’t be allowed? Or bad because it’s software and other folks have the notion that software patents are the death of innovation? It makes my head explode pondering this quandary.

Carbon Sequestration

US Patent 8,308,911, “System and method for atmospheric carbon sequestration,” from November 2012, issued to inventor Michael Cheiky and assigned to Cool Planet Biofuels, LLC. (Anyone remember the early 70s when the rage was global cooling and a new ice age? Just wondering.) “This invention relates to systems and methods for converting biomass into highly inert carbon. Specifically, some embodiments densify the carbon into anthracite-style carbon aggregations and store it in geologically stable underground deposits. The use of certain embodiments yield a net effect of removing atmospheric carbon via the process of photosynthesis and converting it into hard coal, which can be stored in underground beds that mimic existing coal deposits which are known to be stable for thousands of years.”

Carbon Reduction

US Patent 7,919,290, “Bio-recycling of carbon dioxide emitted from power plants,” issued in April 2011 to John Offerman and Hugh McTavish; they retained ownership of the patent. Their invention “provides a method to decrease emission of carbon dioxide from combustion of fossil fuels or other hydrocarbons and to enhance the efficiency of methane production from anaerobic biodigesters. The invention involves feeding carbon dioxide from the exhaust gas of hydrocarbon fuel combustion to an anaerobic biodigester where biomass is anaerobically fermented to produce methane. Carbon dioxide is an electron acceptor for anaerobic fermentation, and thus some of the carbon dioxide is reduced to methane, which can again be used for fuel. In this way, at least a portion of the exhaust gas CO2 is recycled to form fuel methane instead of being released into the atmosphere. Thus, the net CO2 emission from burning a given amount of fossil fuel is decreased. Adding carbon dioxide to an anaerobic fermentation also increases the efficiency and amount of methane production in the fermentation.”

We will explore toxic emissions and fine particulate matter reductions technology that might have played a role at Las Brisas in an upcoming post.

Friday, February 1, 2013

USPTO and Patent Argot - Clearing the Fog

USPTO is seeking comments on ways to improve the quality of issued patents.  To achieve that goal, the Office is looking at new ways to improve the quality of the application and how the specification supports the claims.

One of the topics on which USPTO is seeking comments is on Clarifying the Meaning of Claim Terms in the Specification:

"The best source for determining the meaning of a claim term is the specification. See Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1315-16 (Fed. Cir. 2005). The specification should clearly define the claim language so that the scope of each claim can readily be determined, ensuring the public notice function of the patent claims is best served. In this regard, the USPTO is seeking public comments on advantages and disadvantages of applicants employing the following practices when preparing their patent applications:
1. Indicating whether terms of degree--such as substantially, approximately, about, essentially--have a lay or technical meaning and explaining the scope of such terms.   
2. Including in the specification a glossary of potentially ambiguous, distinctive, and specialized terms used in the specification and/or claims, particularly for inventions related to certain technologies, such as software.  
3. Designating, at the time of filing the application, a default dictionary or dictionaries (e.g., a technical dictionary and a non-technical dictionary) to be used in ascertaining the meaning of the claim terms."

Having spent considerable time dealing with patent argot, patent semantics and the nature of the vocabulary found in patents over time, here is our two cents worth.

1) On Indicating whether terms of degree have lay or technical meaning and explaining the scope of these terms.  

The Patentista, when providing instructions on how to get through an expert witness deposition on a complex software patent infringement case made the point about these kinds of words very clearly - No adjectives and no adverbs.  If the word ends in "ly" don't say it.  And the word the Patentista hated the most was "substantially." Substantially was the patent kiss of death word because it let the honorable opposing counsel narrow the scope of what the claim was (or wasn't).

However, adverbs and adjectives are very helpful in creating patents that stand the test of time enabling the invention to morph to cover different permutations of the invention.  Requiring more clarity within the patent on the terms of degree and their scope, while hard to achieve, is an admirable goal.

2)  On including a glossary.

It would help examiners, applicants, and the regular joes if patents were required to have an explicit glossary of terms preferably right up there with the list of Figures before you get to the detailed description of the invention.  The glossary requirement should also include a requirement for any synonyms that apply.  No synonyms, no expanding the scope of the patent later when something new comes along.  The examiner should be able to add synonyms known to those skilled in the art when the applicant doesn't include them.  So, the "multi-media object" can be a video, a movie, an animated Powerpoint presentation, but not some future walking talking hologram avatar gizmo, unless of course, it meets the definition in the glossary.

This will also speed up the patent litigation process because one of the first thing you do when you start tearing apart a patent is to find all the places where the inventor has defined the terms in the claims or where terms are defined that aren't in the claim.  Having the definitions up front will cut down the building of the glossary when the enforcement action is game on.

On the glossary front, one of Way Better Patents' data wizards dug out all of the definitions of terms found in the body of the US Patent Classification System.  It's organized by class so you can see the way different terms are defined based on the scientific and technical domain in which they are used.  You can read it here.

3) On designating, at the time of filing the application, a default dictionary or dictionaries.

We love old dictionaries (and technical dictionaries) and have been known to troll the used technical book stores to find them.  It's One of the best terms to illustrate how things change over time is to look at the term "mass storage" as in disk drive type storage.  Mass storage circa 1980 was a 600MB removable drive that was stored in a thing that looked like a layer cake carrier.  Today "mass storage" goes into the petabytes and beyond.

We also have all four volumes of the Dictionary of American Regional English in case we need to have all the permutations of the a large sandwich made of a long crusty roll split lengthwise and filled with meat,  cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and other yummy stuff - hero, grinder, bomber, sub, hoagy, hoagie, po boy.  (Another reason to have synonyms in the glossary.)

While we have been cynical of some of the patent quality initiatives, this one looks reasonable, not overly burdensome to implement, and one that will improve the quality of patents.  Good work USPTO.