Archive for December, 2008

Coskata Uses Biofilm to Make Biofuel from Biomass

December 31st, 2008

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A recent DOE newsletter reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is offering loan guarantees for commercial-scale plants producing advanced biofuels (i.e., biofuels produced from materials other than corn kernel starch).  

The article mentions that U.S. Sugar Corporation (USSC) will apply for the loan guarantees to help fund a 100-million gallon per year ethanol facility in Clewiston, Florida.  

USGC has teamed up with Coskata, an Illinois cellulosic ethanol company that owns proprietary technology for converting leftover sugar cane material into ethanol.  Instead of fermenting the plant material, the Coskata process first converts it to synthesis gas, or syngas, and then ferments the gas using anaerobic microorganisms to produce ethanol.

Coskata owns two related patent applications that cover its ethanol production technology.  Patent Application Pub. Nos. 2008/0305539 and 2008/0305540 are directed to a membrane supported bioreactor system for converting syngas to biofuels (collectively “Bioreactor Applications”).  Both applications published on December 11, 2008.

According to the Bioreactor Applications, some major challenges of the gasification and fermentation approach to ethanol production are that it requires large quantities of syngas, highly efficient dissolution and transfer of the gas to microorganisms, and growth and maintenance of a large density of microorganisms. 

Some bioreactors increase the density of the microorganisms using membranes to develop biofilms, but these reactors must be very large or they won’t provide sufficient gas dissolution rates.

The Bioreactor Applications overcome these drawbacks by using one side of a membrane as the syngas contact surface and the opposite side as the surface for growing the microorganisms.  The gas is fed onto the contact side and transported through the membrane to a biofilm of anaerobic microorganisms, where it is fermented into biofuels.

According to the Bioreactor Applications:

 The result is a highly efficient and economical transfer of the syngas at essentially 100% dissolution and utilization, overcoming limitations for the other fermentation methods and fermenter configurations. The syngas diffuses through the membrane from the gas side and into the biofilm where it is transformed by the microbes to the soluble product of interest. Liquid is passed in the liquid side of the membranes via pumping, stirring or similar means to remove the ethanol and other soluble products formed; the products are recovered via a variety of suitable methods.

If the USSC-Coskata project comes to fruition, it would be the world’s largest second generation (made of non-food biomass) ethanol facility (see the Green Car Congress article here) and would be a testament to the power of using biofilm to convert biomass to biofuel.

Boots on the Roof Offers Eco-Mark Certified Solar Instruction

December 27th, 2008

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I recently got an e-mail from the folks at Boots on the Roof (Boots), a Fremont, California company that provides education and training for people interested in learning about solar technology and entering the solar industry. 

Boots offers a 7-day Solar Boot Camp that covers photovoltaic (PV) design and installation in the first five days and solar industry and business development in the last two.  The program provides contractors, electricians, sales reps or anyone else who wants to enter the solar business knowledge about PV equipment and design, installation and solar industry economics and business models.

The company’s credentials include certification by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).  NABCEP is a volunteer board of renewable energy industry representatives that develops national certification programs to promote renewable energy and consumer confidence.

NABCEP owns U.S. Trademark Registration No. 2,971,642 (nabcep_reg.pdf) for the NABCEP logo:

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NABCEP also owns Application No. 77/203,628 (nabcep_app.pdf) for the certification mark NABCEP CERTIFIED SOLAR THERMAL INSTALLER, which verifies that the certification holders “have demonstrated professional knowledge competency to apply the appropriate professional skills necessary in the field of solar thermal systems technology” in accordance with NABCEP’s standards.

Boots leverages the NABCEP certification in two ways.  First, it offers instruction from NABCEP-certified PV installers. 

Second, Boots is a NABCEP certification testing center.  That means students who attend the Solar Boot Camp sit for NABCEP’s Entry Level Certificate of Knowledge of PV Systems exam, which tests basic understanding of PV system operations.  The certificate holder has the requisite knowledge for a supervised, entry level position with a PV installer or industry company.

The relationship between Boots and NABCEP is a good example of the use of certification marks to enhance a company’s green credentials.  Not that Boots’ credentials need enhancing: their instructors are seasoned veterans and include, among others, a former NASA scientist.

SmartLabs Enjoined; Parties’ Smart Management Focuses Issues in Energy Meter Litigation

December 24th, 2008

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P3 International (P3) is a New York consumer electronics company that makes the Kill A Watt electric power meter.  The Kill A Watt meter allows consumers to determine how much energy particular appliances are using.  You simply plug the meter into the wall, plug the appliance into the meter, and monitor the energy consumption of the appliance on the meter’s LCD display. 

The Kill A Watt meter is protected by U.S. Patent No. 6,095,850 (’850 patent), which is directed to an electric adapter (1) having a plug (2) on its rear side which can be plugged into an electric socket (7).  The adaptor has an outlet socket with three holes (3a, 3b, 3c) on the front and a display (4) to show electrical parameters of the appliance being monitored.

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When the user presses the display mode selection switch (6) the display (4) shows, in sequence, voltage level, current value, watt, kilowatt-hour, apparent power value and power factor.

P3 is the exclusive licensee of the ’850 patent.  In June, P3 sued SmartLabs Inc. (SmartLabs), UPM Marketing Inc.  and UPM Technology USA, inc. (collectively “UPM”) in federal court in Manhattan alleging that the electric device makers were infringing the ’850 patent. 

According to the complaint (p3_complaint.pdf), UPM’s infringing devices are the EM100, EM130, EM338 and EM369 Plug-in Energy Meters infringe, and SmartLabs also imports and sells some of UPM’s meters.  The complaint also alleged that SmartLabs intends to import and sell an infringing “Save-A-Watt” energy meter.

In August, the defendants filed counterclaims for declaratory judgment of noninfringement, invalidity and unenforceability of the ’850 patent (smartlabs_answer.pdf).

This month Judge Denise L. Cote signed a stipulation and order (p3_order.pdf) temporarily enjoining SmartLabs from making, importing, offering for sale or selling the Save-A-Watt meter pending the result of the lawsuit.  

The temporary injunction ordered by Judge Cote is one component of an agreement between P3 and SmartLabs to narrow the issues and focus the case.  The two parties also agreed to sever from the suit the issue of SmartLabs’ infringement of the ’850 and to dismiss with prejudice SmartLabs’ counterclaim of noninfringement.

Thus, the case between P3 and SmartLabs will only go forward on the issues of validity and enforceability of the ’850 patent.  If P3 prevails and at least one claim of the patent is found to be valid and enforceable, SmartLabs will be permanently enjoined from moving forward with its Save-A-Watt meter:

It is further stipulated and agreed that, once this case is finally terminated by order, judgment, decree, dismissal, settlement or otherwise, if any one of claims 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10 or 11 of United States Patent No. 6,095,850 has not been adjudged to be invalid or unenforceable, SmartLabs shall be permanently enjoined, by this Stipulation and Order, from making, importing into the United States, selling or offering for sale the Save-A-Watt during the term of that patent…

Since SmartLabs hasn’t sold any of the allegedly infringing devices yet, there are no money damages to be gained by P3 through a full court press on infringement.  This stipulation is a good example of a sensible, efficient approach to patent litigation (in contrast to the Nichia-Seoul Semiconductor lawsuit I blogged about here and here) where the parties expend legal fees and use court time only as necessary to decide the issues that actually matter for disposition of the case. 

ENERGY STAR Fridge Deal A Victory for Consumers

December 20th, 2008

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I’ve written before about the different ways green leaning companies can obtain and enjoy trademark protection for eco-marks (trademarks or service marks that communicate environmentally-friendly products, services or business practices) to promote their green brands. 

But trademark law, unlike other intellectual property regimes, comes out of consumer protection law, and its ultimate intended beneficiary is not the trademark owner, but the consumer.

So I was pleased to learn of the settlement agreement reached by the Department of Energy (DOE) and LG Electronics (LG) about some refrigerator models that had received the ENERGY STAR certification.  The deal is a good example of how certification marks are supposed to work for the consumer. 

The Energy Star program seeks to aid investment in energy efficient products by providing information that consumers and investors can use to research and compare green product or project choices. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) works with the U.S. Department of Energy and manufacturers to award the ENERGY STAR certification to products that meet particular energy savings standards.  The EPA owns U.S. Certification Mark Registration No. 2,817,628 (energy-star-reg.JPG) for its ENERGY STAR design (pictured above). 

Ten of the LG refrigerator models that had received the ENERGY STAR certification evidently listed erroneous energy usage measurements on their labels.  As it turned out, the refrigerators used more energy than advertised and did not actually meet the efficiency standards required to earn the certification.  Clearly, consumer remedies were in order.

As an initial measure, LG has voluntarily withdrawn the subject models from the ENERGY STAR program.  Under the terms of the agreement, LG will offer consumers free in-home modifications to improve the energy efficiency of the products.  LG will also offer a one-time payment to consumers to cover the energy cost difference between the actual energy use of the product and the amount stated on the original label.

Finally, because the modifications to the refrigerators will not bring them up to ENERGY STAR efficiency levels, going forward LG will make payments to consumers each year over the expected life of the product to make up the difference between the energy use as modified and the listed use on the original label.

This is the way certification marks are supposed to work:  the certifying organization actively polices the companies using the mark and demands remedial measures when those companies’ products are not up to snuff.  Of course, DOE has the resources and clout to enforce the ENERGY STAR certification.  It remains to be seen whether smaller, non-governmental certifying organizations can be as effective.

Serious Materials’ Elegant Process Greens Gypsum Drywall

December 17th, 2008

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Serious Materials is a Silicon Valley company that makes sustainable building materials.  Serious Materials’ new EcoRock drywall is one of the greenest building materials on the market.

The EcoRock manufacturing process requires 80% less energy than production of tradional gypsum drywall and results in substantially reduced carbon dioxide emissions.  These reductions are due to a streamlined process that omits the most energy-intensive steps such as calcining (dehydrating) and oven-drying the drywall material.

Serious Materials owns U.S. Patent Application Pub. No. 2008/0286609 (’609 Application), which is directed to the EcoRock wallboard and manufacturing method. 

Gypsum wallboard generally consists of a hardened gypsum core sandwiched between two sheets of paper or other fibrous material.  A major ingredient of the core is calcium sulfate hemihydrate, commonly known as calcined gypsum or stucco.  The calcination step to harden the core requires energy intensive heating of the gypsum and produces large volumes of carbon dioxide.

Serious Materials’ new process allows wallboard to be made from non-calcined materials.  According to the ’609 application, the EcoRock drywall core is made from a novel binder containing a metal silicate such as calcium silicate and an acid phosphate, together with certain fillers.  Liquids such as water or phosphoric acid are added to this “dry mix” to form a slurry. 

The key is that the combination of binder components creates an exothermic reaction that heats the slurry naturally, obviating the need for energy-intensive heating equipment.  This elegant solution may be the most significant innovation in a process that has been used, by some accounts, for over 100 years.

Indeed, the EcoRock drywall won the 2008 Popular Science “Best of What’s New” Award in the green tech innovation category.

An interesting note from the trademark side:  Serious Materials’ U.S. Trademark Application Serial No. 77/035,889 (ecorock_app.pdf) for ECOROCK for “drywall” sailed through the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (ecorock_allowance.pdf) with nary a peep from the examining attorney about being “merely descriptive” of sustainable building materials, despite the mark’s “ECO” component.  (see some previous posts on descriptiveness here and here

The “ROCK” component and the plain vanilla goods description apparently won the day for Serious Materials’ mark.

Solar Sailor Harnesses Wind and Sun to Clean Up Cargo Ships

December 14th, 2008

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In a previous post, I discussed aerodynamic kites to harness wind power for driving watercraft.  Solar Sailor has taken that idea a step further. 

Solar Sailor is an Australian company that makes Hybrid Marine Power (HMP) solar sails, which use hybrid electric technology to harness both wind and solar power for large watercraft.  The technology allows the sails to be angled to maximize wind and solar efficiency.

This Ecogeek article reports that Solar Sailor recently entered into an agreement with COSCO, the largest Chinese shipping line, to fit their cargo ships with large HMP solar sails. 

The sails are 30 meters long and covered with solar photovoltaic panels.  According to Ecogeek, the solar panels will provide 5 percent of the ships’ electricity, and the sails will harness enough wind to reduce fuel costs by 20-40%.

The HMP system can be configured in a “series” hybrid layout so the ship is powered entirely by electricity from a generator and batteries, with energy supplied by the solar cells.  Alternatively, a “parallel” hybrid layout is powered by both internal combustion engines and electric motors.

Solar Sailor owns a few patents and pending patent applications relating to its solar sail technology.  U.S. Patent No. 6,105,524 is directed to pivoting wing sails that can be rotated around their longitudinal axes and/or laterally declined to best take advantage of wind and sunlight conditions.

International Application WO 2005/012079 (’079 application) relates to an unmanned watercraft with a hybrid solar and wind energy propulsion system.

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The system of the ’079 application includes a wing sail (503) covered with photovoltaic cells (504) which supply electrical energy to an energy storage means (511) such as batteries or capacitors.  The energy storage means supplies DC power to an electric motor/generator (510) which drives a propeller (512).

As the Ecogeek piece points out, technology like this for cargo ships, and decisions to implement it by companies like COSCO, is very important because the shipping industry often escapes environmental regulation due to its critical role in the global economy.

Adventus Asserts Decontamination Patents Against AST and Calgon

December 10th, 2008

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EnviroMetal Technologies, Inc. (ETI) is a Canadian company that provides processes for treating contaminated groundwater.  ETI is the exclusive licensee of several patents relating to groundwater remediation technology.

Last month ETI, along with Adventus Americas, Inc. (the sub-licensee of the patents), both part of the Adventus Group (collectively “Adventus”), sued AST Environmental, Inc.  and Calgon Carbon Corp. (collectively “Defendants”) in federal court in Charlotte, North Carolina, alleging infringement of six of the licensed patents.

According to the complaint (adventus_complaint.pdf), Defendants are infringing the patents by making and selling BOS 100, a reactant that removes the chlorine from chlorinated contaminants.

The complaint also accuses Defendants of deceiving potential Adventus customers through misrepresentations and unsubstantiated claims about the performance of BOS 100 in violation of North Carolina’s deceptive trade practices statute.

The asserted patents are directed to methods of cleaning groundwater that has been contaminated with chlorinated or halogenated organic compounds such as PCBs and pesticides. 

According to the patents, prior processes collected the pollutants from the water, which created a disposal problem.  The disclosed methods break down the pollutants in the water instead.

Some of the claimed decontamination methods include:

contacting the groundwater with an anaerobic portion of a metal to replace a chlorine ion or other halogen ion with a hydroxide ion (U.S. Patent No. 5,266,213, or ’213 patent);

passing contaminated water through a mixture of an adsorptive material such as activated carbon and a metal to break down the contaminant (U.S. Patent No. 5,534,154, or ’154 patent); and

promoting decomposition or degradation of halogens or other chemical contaminants in water by adding multi-valent metal particles and fibrous organic matter that supports bacterial or fungal growth (U.S. Patents Nos. 5,411,664, 5,480,579, 5,618,427 and 6,083,394).

This is not the first lawsuit involving this technology.  Remediation Products, Inc. (RPI) is a Golden, Colorado company that makes and sells the BOS 100 product and owns U.S. Trademark Registration No. 2,863,360 (bos_100_-reg.pdf) for the BOS 100 mark.  In April 2007, RPI sued Adventus and ETI in federal court in Charlotte requesting a declaratory judgment that the BOS 100 does not infringe the ’213 and 154 patents and that the patents are invalid (rpi_complaint.pdf).

Arbitrator Clears Electric Carmaker in Trade Secrets Case

December 7th, 2008

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In a previous post, I wrote about a trade secrets case between two rival electric car startups, Tesla Motors (Tesla) and Fisker Automotive (Fisker). 

In the lawsuit, filed in April, Tesla accused Fisker along with its CEO, Henrik Fisker, its COO, Bernhard Koehler, and Mssrs. Fisker and Koehler’s design company, Fisker Coachbuild, of stealing Tesla’s confidential design ideas for a hybrid electric sedan.

Tesla had alleged that Fisker Coachbuild, which Tesla hired to help design a high performance electric-hybrid sports sedan, used confidential information acquired during the engagement to secretly design its own directly competing sedan, the Karma

Last month Fisker announced that an arbitrator issued an interim award decision absolving the carmaker and the design company of any wrongdoing.  The arbitrator’s decision is not public so our only source for the details of the decision is Fisker’s PR department, which didn’t release the grounds for the decision.

According to Fisker’s press release, the arbitrator found Tesla’s trade secrets claim “baseless” and “neither brought nor pursued in good faith.” 

The good news for Fisker didn’t end there: the electric carmaker also announced last month that it would open an engineering and development facility in Pontiac, Michigan and that it signed an assembly contract with Valment Automotive to manufacture the Karma in Finland.