Archive for August, 2008

Clipper Windpower’s Uber-Patented Turbine

August 28th, 2008

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Clipper Windpower (Clipper) currently has the distinction of building the world’s largest wind energy project.  The wind turbine maker, headquartered in both London and Carpinteria, California, has entered into a joint venture with BP Alternative Energy to build a 5,050 megawatt facility in South Dakota.

The facility will use Clipper’s Liberty wind turbine, which has patent protection from all angles.  According to Clipper’s “at a glance” page, the Liberty includes patented generators, a patented distributed powertrain and patented variable speed technology. 

Some of the patents that cover the Liberty include U.S. Patent Nos. 7,233,129 and 7,339,355 (generators), U.S. Patent Nos. 6,653,744, 6,731,017 and 7,069,802 (distributed powertrain), and U.S. Patent No. 7,042,110 (variable speed technology).  The patented innovations make the Liberty more efficient and more reliable than traditional large scale wind turbine designs.

The fundamental components of a wind turbine are the rotor, gearbox and generator.  The gearbox converts low speed rotation from the turbine blades into high speed rotation suitable for generating energy.  The gearbox output shaft turns the shaft of the generator, which, through conversion circuits, connects to the utility grid to provide current to the grid.

Typical turbine gearboxes are “planetary” gearboxes (i.e., having outer gears revolving around a central “sun” gear) with the speed change occurring in three or four stages of rpm step-up.  But planetary gearboxes for multi-megawatt turbines require huge, expensive gears and bearings as well as large generators.  The parts are very heavy and need a lot of maintenance, and repairs can take a wind turbine off-line for a long period of time.

Clipper’s distributed powertrain patents generally relate to a compact gearbox with a multiple-path design to divide and distribute torque load.  The load drives four smaller generators instead of a single big one. 

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Instead of a planetary gear arrangement, the patented design has helical gears to promote smooth meshing.  The gear sets are in “cartridge” form and can be easily replaced without removing the gearbox.

Clipper’s variable speed technology uses magnet generators that improve efficiency.  Traditional variable speed systems use generators which pull current from the turbine unit or the utility grid to excite the rotor and create a magnetic field.  

The patented magnet generators don’t have to pull power from the unit or the grid because they are already magnetized.  As a result, the Liberty can operate at higher efficiency over a wide range of loads.

The Clipper Liberty wind turbine is a great example of establishing robust patent protection by breaking down new technology into its patentable constituent parts and patenting as many of those parts as possible.

WIPO Magazine Article Discusses IP Strategies of Spanish Solar Company

August 26th, 2008

The WIPO Magazine recently published an interesting online article about patent strategies in solar technology.  The article profiles Spanish photovoltaic and solar thermal company Isofoton and discusses the company’s IP strategies. 

Based on an interview with the company’s R&D director, Jesus Alonso, the article discusses Isofoton’s patent portfolio, including worldwide prosecution strategies, technology transfer strategies on licensing in and licensing out, and the company’s attitudes on patent enforcement.

In the still limited clean tech IP corpus, this article is one of the best I’ve read.  It demonstrates the importance of IP in clean tech and provides a good illustration of how patent strategy is shaped by a clean tech company’s business goals.

Lights! Camera! Civil Action! Litepanels Sues Sony Over Film Production LEDs

August 23rd, 2008

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Litepanels LLC (Litepanels) is a North Hollywood, California company that makes and sells LED lighting systems for use in film and broadcast production.  Last month Litepanels sued Sony Corp. (Sony) and two of its U.S. subsidiaries in federal court in Marshall, Texas, alleging infringement of two of its patents relating to camera-mounted and wide lighting LED packages.

U.S. Patent Nos. 6,948,823 (’823 patent) and 7,163,302 (’302 patent) describe multiple LEDs arranged on a panel that can be attached to a camera frame (see patent figure below). 

The two patents are related (the ’302 patent is a “continuation” of the ’823) but differ in that the ’823 patent claims embodiments with portable frames that can be attached to a camera while the ’302 patent claims embodiments having a particular color range, a mechanism for dissipating heat and an element for focusing the emitted light. 

According to the patents, prior LED systems are unsuitable for film and photographic uses because they narrowly focused light, providing a very short working distance and a small illumination diameter.  Also, LED systems for live entertainment typically include colorized LEDs, which create uneven lighting unsuitable for most film, television and photographic applications.

The complaint (litepanelscomplaint.pdf) accuses Sony of infringing the patents by manufacturing, importing and selling camera-mounted lighting products and specifically names the Sony HVL-LBP Camera-Mounted Video Light (top).  Litepanels also makes the standard allegations of willful infringement and inducing infringement by encouraging distributors and retailers to sell allegedly infringing products.

Litepanels is seeking enhanced damages and attorney fees and has asked the court to issue an injunction to stop Sony from making or selling the allegedly infringing products.

This is not the first time this year Sony has been the target of an LED patent suit.  Previously, LED innovator Gertrude Neumark Rothschild sued Sony, among many others, in the U.S. International Trade Commission.  Sony quickly took a license from Rothschild.  It will be interesting to see if Sony chooses to fight this one.

Green Patent Acquisitions: Schneider Electric to Buy Xantrex; Lighting Science Group Buys Lamina

August 21st, 2008

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There are a couple of key clean tech purchases from the end of July to report.  First, the French power solutions conglomerate Schneider Electric agreed to buy Vancouver-based solar inverter company Xantrex for $489 million.  (see the press release and the greentech media story)

Xantrex owns about 30 utility and design patents and several patent applications covering power conversion devices for solar- and wind-power systems.  As I discussed here a couple of months ago, Xantrex also is involved in trade secret litigation with competitor Advanced Energy Industries.

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There also was some movement in the large and growing LED market, with Dallas-based Lighting Science Group (LSG) acquiring Lamina Lighting (Lamina) for $4.5 million.  (see the greentech media piece)  LSG makes LED lighting systems, controllers, dimmers and other components. 

Lamina owns a several patents and applications relating to LED light sources, including U.S. Patent No. 7,300,182, entitled “LED light sources for image projection systems,” U.S. Patent No. 7,095,053, directed to an LED packaged for high temperature operation, and design patent D572,385, which appears to cover the design for Lamina’s Titan Series LED lighting system.

Pratt & Whitney to Announce Completion of First Phase Flight Testing of Patented Reduced Emission Jet Engine

August 20th, 2008

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I received an e-mail today from Pratt & Whitney (P&W) about its PurePower PW1000G demonstration engine.  P&W will announce tomorrow (pwpressrelease.doc) that the jet engine completed its first phase of flight testing, having logged about 43 hours in 12 flights on a company owned test plane. 

The PurePower engine uses P&W’s patented Geared Turbofan technology, which I discussed in a previous post.  The technology is covered at least in part by U.S. Patent Nos. 7,021,042 and 6,964,155.

The Geared Turbofan design integrates a gear box between the engine’s fan and turbine to keep the turbine and fan on the same driveshaft while allowing both to operate closer to their optimal speeds.  This boosts efficiency (by increasing turbine speed) and reduces noise (by lowering fan speed).

According to P&W, “[t]he PW1000G engine targets double-digit reductions in fuel burn, environmental emissions, engine noise and operating costs for the next generation of commercial aircraft.”

The next stop for the PW1000G is France.  The demonstration engine is on its way to Toulouse for the next phase of testing, where Airbus will become the first aircraft manufacturer to fly the PW1000G on its own A340 flight test aircraft.

Global Hydrogen Inc. Turns Water Into Hydrogen

August 19th, 2008

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In view of the cross-country hydrogen vehicle tour last week, it seems like a good time for a post on hydrogen technology.  Global Hydrogen, Inc. (GHI) is a small Texas company founded by Dr. Linnard Griffin that says it has developed a more efficient, low-voltage hydrogen production process. (see the Matter Network story)

Dr. Griffin is the named inventor on a family of patent applications covering his hydrogen generation equipment and techniques.  U.S. Application Pub. Nos. 2005/0042150 (’150 application) and 2006/0180464 (’464 application) are directed to apparatus and methods for producing hydrogen.

Known reactions for producing hydrogen gas from water and metallic compounds either react too quickly or too slowly to be useful or require very expensive metals of intermediate reactivity.  According to the ’150 and ’464 applications, Dr. Griffin’s process makes hydrogen efficiently with relatively inexpensive metals.

The process generates hydrogen from water using a special electrolyte.  The reaction uses metal catalysts in colloidal form (i.e., composed of very small particles that are dispersed, but not dissolved, in solution).  The tiny size of the catalyst particles results in a large effective surface area that increases contact with other molecules and accelerates the rate of reaction.

The ’150 and ’464 applications describe the electrolyte reaction medium and the electrode construction of the reaction vessel (pictured below).  The medium comprises water, an acid or base, two colloidal metal catalysts and an ionic salt. 

The reaction occurs in a reaction vessel 100 which has an anode 106 (an electrode that attracts negatively charged ions) and a cathode 104 (an electrode that attracts positively charged ions), each in contact with the reaction medium 102.  The anode and cathode are connected to a controller 108, which allows the user to select from a range of hydrogen production rates. 

The reaction vessel has an inlet 112 for adding water and an outlet 110 for the hydrogen to escape.  The resulting hydrogen can be fed to a fuel cell to produce electric energy.

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According to GHI’s web site and its white paper on the technology, this process requires substantially less electricty than the best hydrogen generation technique currently known (41.2 kilowatt hours per kg of hydrogen produced versus 53.4 kWh per kg). 

The other obvious advantage of Dr. Griffin’s technology is that it could make hydrogen production from water economical.  It would be a big step forward if clean hydrogen production becomes commercially viable – currently the raw materials for most industrial hydrogen generation are fossil fuels.

California Sets Statewide Standards for Building Green

August 17th, 2008

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Last month California adopted a statewide green building code which pushes builders to reduce energy use in their structures by 15% below the state’s current mandatory energy efficiency standards.  The standards cover both commercial and residential construction, including public institutions such as schools and hospitals. 

The California Green Building Standards Code will be administered by the California Building Standards Commission (Commission), which is responsible for the state’s building codes.  The new code will take effect 180 days from adoption and applies to all new construction statewide, although compliance will be voluntary until 2010.

The code provides standards for energy efficiency, water conservation, material conservation, resource efficiency and environmental quality.  If these measures are met, the complying buildings would meet the requirements for a silver rating under the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

A friend of mine at the Department of Energy pointed out that requiring targets for green buildings that meet a certain LEED certification level could eliminate the market for the certification altogether in the state; if all new buildings are de facto LEED certified, then why spend the money for official certification to distinguish your building?

Of course, there are other certifying organizations that will benefit from the new code.  For example, Section 705.2.1 of the code requires that wood-based materials and products that make up at least 50% of a major building component, such as framing, floors or millwork, be certified by one of several standards setting organizations, including the Forest Stewardship Council, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Standard and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) Schemes.  Other building aspects that require certification include heating and cooling systems and carpeting.

The Commission says that the code is the first of its kind in the U.S., and here’s hoping that other states follow in California’s footsteps.  Such comprehensive policy measures are very important for combatting global climate change:  according to the USGBC, buildings nationwide account for 39% of U.S. energy use and 39% of carbon dioxide emissions. 

HP and Be Green Packaging Become Certifiably Green

August 13th, 2008

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Two companies recently qualified to use a couple of different certification marks to further their green branding efforts.  Hewlett-Packard (HP) just announced that all of its business PC, printing and server products shipped in the U.S. and Canada have qualified for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) SmartWay certification. 

In a previous post I discussed the SmartWay program, which certifies low environmental impact vehicles.  Earlier this year, all of HP’s consumer products were also SmartWay certified.  This means that now both HP’s consumer products and business products are shipped by SmartWay-certified surface transportation carriers, and the SmartWay logo smartway_vehicles_logo.gifwill appear on HP’s product packaging.

Massachusetts packaging company Be Green Packaging (BGP) has qualified for the Cradle to Cradle certification, which signifies that a product meets certain sustainability criteria, including being wholly recyclable.  

Environmental and sustainability consulting firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) owns several certification mark applications for the Cradle to Cradle logo (shown above) and the word marks CRADLE TO CRADLE CERTIFIED and CERTIFIED CRADLE TO CRADLE.  MBDC also owns a trademark application for CRADLE TO CRADLE for paper and packaging goods.

Interestingly, MBDC’s attempts to protect similar marks as both certification marks and ordinary trademarks has created a dilemma for the company.  Under U.S. trademark law, an applicant can’t get a certification mark registration if the applicant produces or markets any of the goods or services to which the certification mark is applied. 

Accordingly, in an office action on MBDC’s application for the CRADLE TO CRADLE CERTIFIED certification mark, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) required that MBDC abandon its CRADLE TO CRADLE trademark application before the certification mark can be registered (cradleofficeaction.pdf).  So MBDC has to make a business decision whether federal protection is more important for its certification program or its paper and packaging brand.

In addition to using MBDC’s certification mark, BGP has filed an application to register its own BE GREEN PACKAGING trademark, and the application seems to be sailing through the PTO without a hitch.  In view of the problems faced by PNC Bank’s GREEN BRANCH application and my own GREEN PATENT BLOG application, one might have expected a rejection on the ground that the mark is merely descriptive of environmentally friendly packaging services.

Instead, although the trademark examiner stated that “green packaging” is descriptive wording, she only required that BGP disclaim any rights to those words apart from the whole mark (begreenofficeaction.pdf).  Apparently, like ”APPLE” in GREEN APPLE CLEANERS, the non-descriptive element ”BE” in BE GREEN PACKAGING allowed the mark as a whole to clear the descriptiveness hurdle.

SHEC Mate: Solar Hydrogen Energy Corp Bests MIT for Most Efficient Solar Concentrator

August 9th, 2008

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Solar Hydrogen Energy Corporation (SHEC) Labs, a renewable energy research and development company, has the distinction of creating the most efficient solar thermal technology in the world, jumping ahead of a group at MIT also working on boosting solar thermal efficiency

Concentrating solar power (CSP), or solar thermal, technology magnifies sunlight with mirrors or lenses and uses tracking systems to focus the light.  The concentrated light can be used as a heat source for any number of applications, including conventional power plants.  Typically, this entails heating a working fluid such as steam or a hydraulic fluid.

First, a couple of staggering stats:  SHEC’s solar concentrator can concentrate solar energy up to 5,000 times the ordinary intensity of sunlight as it reaches the earth (the MIT technology concentrates by a factor of 1,000).  The heat can reach a temperature of 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit and can instantly melt metal if the concentrated sunlight is focused on it.

A CSP system has two major components.  The first is the solar concentrator (the mirror or lens), which often takes the form of a parabolic or trough-shaped reflector. 

The second is the receiver, typically a tube with an aperture and a reflective coating.  The concentrator directs the concentrated sunlight through the aperture, the sunlight bounces around within the receiver, and the energy is eventually absorbed.

SHEC has filed two patent applications, one for its solar concentrator and one for the receiver.  U.S. Patent Application Pub. No. 2008/0060636 (’636 application) is directed to a solar concentrator having a shutter apparatus with a plurality of movable shutter plates (10) arranged around a central aperture (14). 

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A shutter drive moves the plates between the open and closed positions.  When a shutter plate is in the closed position, it blocks only a portion of the aperture. 

By controlling how many and which plates close, varying portions of the solar beam can be blocked and prevented from entering the receiver.  In additon to traveling through the center aperture, the sunlight can pass between the edges of the shutter plates.

The concentrator also has a cooling circuit which circulates cooling fluid to prevent potential damage to the shutter plates from the heat of sun.

According to the ’636 application, this design allows finer control over the amount of heat energy directed to the receiver.  This is important because many existing solar receivers include boilers or thermal reactors that have no throttle-type control to assure that the energy supplied corresponds to the load of the engine. 

Thus, if the load drops and the solar energy supplied remains constant, the engine overheats and sustains damage.  Prior solutions included movable mirror segments with many complex moving parts, and shutter plates which were often fragile and subject to damage from the elements.  The ’636 application provides a more elegant solution.

U.S. Patent Applicaton Pub. No. 2008/0184990 (’990 application) covers an apparatus for collecting heat from a solar concentrator.  The receiver has an isothermal (i.e., maintaining a constant temperature) body and an elongated cavity.  

A key feature of SHEC’s receiver is that the circular aperture has a diameter equal to the diameter of the focused sunlight reflected by the solar concentrator and is located at the focus point of the concentrator.  This minimizes parasitic losses of sunlight and substantially boosts efficiency.

Not surprisingly, according to this Ecogeek piece, SHEC’s super efficient CSP system already has a couple of buyers.  From an IP perspective, SHEC’s duo of complementary patent applications offers a good illustration of how to divide a new system into its key components and pursue patent protection for each.

Pratt & Whitney’s Geared Turbofan Engine

August 7th, 2008

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Pratt & Whitney’s new Geared Turbofan engine could reduce jet fuel use by up to 15% and emissions by as much as 20%.  (see the Matter Network piece and the more detailed Machine Design write up)  The technology is covered at least in part by U.S. Patent Nos. 7,021,042 and 6,964,155.

In a turbofan engine, a fan powered by a turbine directs incoming air into and around the combustion chamber.  Generally, a big, powerful fan is required because a large volume of air needs to be directed into the combustion chamber.  The power comes from rotating turbine blades, which turns a shaft that drives the fan. 

The problem is that turbines are most efficient at high speeds, but spinning the large fan quickly generates more noise and increases the torque requirements.  So the goals of reducing noise (by lowering fan speed) and increasing efficiency (by increasing turbine speed) are in direct conflict.

To achieve the desired low fan speed and turbine efficiency, Pratt & Whitney’s Geared Turbofan integrates a gear box between the fan and the turbine.  This arrangement keeps the turbine and fan on the same driveshaft while allowing both to operate closer to their optimal speeds.

The Geared Turbofan comes just as airlines are looking for ways to combat the astronomical costs of jet fuel, and Pratt & Whitney’s new engine will be a part of the solution.  According to the company’s web site, aircraft manufacturer Bombardier will use the Geared Turbofan for its CSeries jets, and Mitsubishi will be using the new engine for its regional jets

(Thanks to Franco Serafini – a blog reader, colleague and IP attorney with aerospace industry experience – who provided invaluable editorial assistance for this post).