Archive for March, 2008

Cargo Ships With the Wind at their Backs

March 27th, 2008

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Who would have thought you could get patent protection for putting a sail on a ship?  It seems the novelty was lost in the days of Columbus.  But that’s what German company SkySails has done. 

SkySails’ computer-controlled kites can reduce fuel use in large freight tankers by 10-35% and are the subject of a recently-issued patent.  Both EcoGeek and Matter Network have reported on the kites, which span more than 1700 square feet and fly at a height of 600-1,000 feet to take advantage of stronger and more stable winds.

U.S. Patent No. 7,287,481 covers an aerodynamic kite for driving watercraft.  The device, which the patent calls an “aerodynamic profile element,” alleviates certain problems inherent in using large kites, such as control of the kite, unpacking and packing the kite (“unreefing” and “reefing”) and launch and retrieval procedures. 

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The kite has an upper layer and a lower layer with four openings for air intake between the two layers arranged around the horizontal longitudinal axis of the kite.  Air enters the openings and fills the internal space between the upper and lower layers. 

A stiff kite stick fixed along the longitudinal centerline of the kite provides stabilization.  The stick may be shortened or locked in a particular position for ease of reefing and unreefing.  A gondola at the bottom of the kite connects to a pulling cable that can attach to a watercraft.  The kite has a network of reefing lines that extend to outer fixing points at the outer edges of the kite.

With the fuel savings the SkySails kite provides, it may become a very popular product for cargo ships.  But SkySails isn’t stopping there; it also filed a patent application for a device for converting wind into mechanical energy, which pairs its kites with energy converters.  Perhaps a subject for another post…

The Trouble With Eco-Marks (Part I)

March 23rd, 2008

Since I started reading, researching and posting about the prevalence of eco-marks (trademarks that communicate environmentally-friendly products or practices), I’ve been troubled by them.  There is, of course, the obvious concern about false, unsubstantiated, or misleading environmental claims, known as “greenwashing,” which troubles me as a consumer.  This concern has been borne out by a recently published report by Terra Choice, an environmental marketing agency, called “The Six Sins of Greenwashing,” which surveyed over 1,000 purportedly green products and found that the vast majority made false or misleading claims.  I’ve discussed this problem, and a couple of ways to combat it in this space before. (see prior posts here and here)

But there is something else about the union of green marketing and trademarks that troubles me as an IP lawyer.   As I mentioned in previous posts, one can’t get a federal registration for a mark that is a descriptive or generic term for the goods or services because that would prevent competitors from identifying their goods or services.  An application for federal registration of a trademark must specifically identify the goods or services the mark will be used in connection with.  It is this identification, or listing, of goods or services that the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) examines to decide whether the mark should be allowed a federal registration.  This decision is guided by many factors including the level of descriptiveness of the mark.  But the trouble with eco-marks is that the identification of goods rarely reflects the environmental component of the mark.  Take, for example, the identifications of services for two marks owned by PNC Bank: 

1.  FINANCIAL SERVICES, NAMELY, BANKING SERVICES FEATURING CHECKING, SAVINGS AND INVESTMENT ACCOUNT SERVICES; FINANCIAL WEALTH MANAGEMENT; CONSUMER LENDING SERVICES; INVESTMENT BROKERAGE SERVICES; PENSION VALUATION SERVICES; ADMINISTRATION OF EMPLOYEE PENSION PLANS; INSURANCE AGENCY SERVICES; LIFE, HEALTH, ACCIDENT AND FIRE INSURANCE UNDERWRITING; INVESTMENT BANKING SERVICES; FUNDS INVESTMENT AND FUND INVESTMENT CONSULTATION.

2.  BANKING; FINANCIAL SERVICES, NAMELY, FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT SERVICES, FINANCIAL PLANNING SERVICES, ESTATE PLANNING SERVICES, TAX PLANNING SERVICES, RETIREMENT PLANNING SERVICES, GIFT PLANNING SERVICES, DISTRIBUTION PLANNING SERVICES, ENDOWMENT MANAGEMENT AND PRIVATE FOUNDATION ADMINISTRATION SERVICES, EMPLOYEE BENEFIT PLAN MANAGEMENT AND SERVICES, FINANCIAL PORTFOLIO MANAGEMENT SERVICES, INVESTMENT ADVISORY, MANAGEMENT AND CONSULTATION SERVICES, INVESTMENT BANKING SERVICES, SECURITIES UNDERWRITING AND BROKERAGE SERVICES, INSURANCE UNDERWRITING SERVICES IN THE FIELDS OF LIFE, HEALTH, ACCIDENT, FIRE, MARINE, AND MEDICAL, AND ANNUITY UNDERWRITING AND BROKERAGE SERVICES, AND BANKING SERVICES. 

You wouldn’t know it, but one listing is for an eco-mark.  The first is the identification of services for the mark GREEN BRANCH, the second is for EASY AS PNC.  By reading the GREEN BRANCH listing, one would never suspect that PNC is using the mark to attract environmentally-conscious consumers by touting the bank’s green ways.  There is no mention of PNC’s energy efficient technology, green buildings, or any other environmentally-friendly business practices. 

It seems to me that GREEN BRANCH arguably is descriptive of the services actually provided – financial services in environmentally-friendly bank facilities – even though it is, of course, not descriptive of the services listed.  While trademark examiners in the PTO sometimes take it upon themselves to look beyond the listing of goods or services to the context of the mark’s use, they don’t always, and the result is stealth prosecution of eco-marks as these arguably descriptive trademarks may slip under the radar of the PTO.

“Personality Files” Provide Adaptive Interfaces for Energy Efficiency

March 16th, 2008

BPL Global, a smart grid software and technology company, has bolstered its energy distribution intelligence services by acquiring Connected Energy and its energy demand management platform.  Connected Energy owns patent-pending web-based software called COMSYS, which provides a virtual, real-time control center for management of remote energy resources.  The COMSYS system can be used with any type of energy production facility, including wind farms, solar arrays, diesel generators and turbine generators.  The system allows monitoring and control of these facilities to improve their efficiency.

The COMSYS system is the subject of two related patent applications, U.S. Application Pub. No. 2007/0208434 (’434 Application) and U.S. Application Pub. No. 2003/0109942 (’942 Application).   The applications disclose an interface apparatus that is standardized to be manufactured relatively cheaply on a large scale yet versatile enough to work with a wide variety of industrial equipment.  The interface apparatus can connect machines having different data format and storage configurations and different electrical interface characteristics.  This versatility is achieved through the apparatus’s “personality files,” data files that configure an electrical interface and a programmable data translator according to the particular machine to which the apparatus is connected. 

The personality files are the customization engine of COMSYS.  They contain human readable text of a set of data definitions (e.g., network communications port settings, data point monitoring parameters and user interface screens) that respond to and match the parameters of the particular industrial machine the user needs to monitor and control.  The electrical interface can be manufactured to configure to a particular industrial machine, or the interface device can hold a variety of personality files and the configuration can take place in the field.

The ’434 Application is a continuation of the ’942 Application (see my previous post on continuation applications), which was filed back in 2001.  Connected Energy fought a long battle with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) over the ’942 Application, including filing an appeal with the PTO Appeals Board.  Its persistence paid off:  a patent has been granted and will issue this Tuesday, March 18th.  The ’434 Application also seems likely to result in an issued patent:  it claims a narrower invention than the ’942 Application. 

Quick Charge Hydrogen Fuel Cell Phones

March 8th, 2008

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Angstrom Power’s micro hydrogen fuel cells can be sized to fit in existing cell phone battery spaces and can be recharged in just 10 minutes.  It’s no wonder that Motorola was keen to replace lithium ion batteries with Angstrom’s fuel cells.  As Green Tech Gazette reported, Motorola has put the micro hydrogen fuel cells in its MOTOSVR L7 cell phone, which was on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. 

Angstrom has a number of patents covering its fuel cell technology.  U.S. Patent Nos. 6,864,010 and 6,969,563 are directed to high power density fuel cells using the company’s special micro-structured architecture.  Unlike conventional fuel cell designs, which include discrete gas diffusion layers, catalyst layers and electrolyte layers, Angstrom’s fuel cells integrate the functions of all three layers into a single porous substrate.  The three “layers” can be folded together to form various shapes.  In addition, Angstrom’s porous micro-structure increases the electrochemically active surface area of the fuel cell.  The resulting high energy density fuel cells are well-suited for small portable consumer electronics. (read Angstrom’s description of how its micro hydrogen fuel cell works)

Nanosolar’s Thin Film “Printing Press”: Creating Cost Competitive Solar Cells

March 4th, 2008

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For solar power to be truly competitive with traditional energy sources, it has to approach cost parity with power generation using traditional sources. The two primary ways to do this are to increase the efficiency of converting sunlight to power (the approach most in the industry have taken) and to lower the manufacturing cost of solar cells. Nanosolar has focused on the latter, and has at least three patents that cover its manufacturing technique. According to this New York Times article, Nanosolar can profitably sell solar panels for less than $1 a watt, the price at which solar energy becomes cheaper than coal.

Solar cells typically are made by manufacturing methods borrowed from the semiconductor industry that consist of depositing photovoltaic film on silicon wafers. Nanosolar instead uses a printing technique to lay thin film photovoltaic material on a conductive metal foil. This method is possible because Nanosolar’s thin film solar cells are made of copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) instead of silicon, which provides additional savings by giving Nanosolar immunity from silicon supply shortages and fluctuations in the price of the silicon raw material. Silicon solar cells are made from slices of solid silicon instead of the metal foil used by Nanosolar to make CIGS cells.

At the particle level, Nanosolar’s solar cells have a different structure from traditional silicon solar cells. In silicon cells, the absorption of photons of light results in the formation of a free electron and hole (the space remaining when an electron moves). In the Nanosolar cells, the photoexcitation leads to formation of a bound electron and hole pair called an exciton. To optimally convert light to electrical energy, the electron and hole comprising the exciton have to be spaced a certain distance from each other so that charges can be collected at different electrodes.

U.S. Patent No. 7,253,017 describes Nanosolar’s manufacturing process and claims a method of fabricating thin film solar cells having electron and hole-accepting materials at the right distance for optimal exciton activity. A film having a network of interconnecting nanoscale pores is formed on a substrate. Then semiconducting materials are deposited in the pores. After the pores in the template film have been filled, the template is removed using a chemical process that leaves the semiconducting material intact as a nanoscale grid network. The remaining spaces between the nanoscale grid network are filled with a complementary semiconducting material so the resulting interfaces have ideal conditions for electron travel and charge collection.