Archive for March, 2009

Green Patent Acquisitions: VAWT Maker and “Windvertiser” WePOWER Purchases PacWind

March 29th, 2009

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WePOWER is a Laguna Niguel, California renewable energy company that provides wind, solar and magnetic energy solutions.  The company’s specialty is vertical axis wind turbines (VAWT) for use in cities and suburban areas.

WePOWER had been partnering with another California VAWT startup called PacWind and announced last month that it has purchased PacWind’s proprietary technologies.  PacWind’s patent portfolio included U.S. Patent No. 7,109,599 (’599 patent) and U.S. Patent Application Pub. No. 2008/0273978 (’978 application), both relating to omni-directional VAWTs.

The ’599 patent is directed to a wind rotor having a central vertical axis of rotation (13).  The rotor assembly includes an upper ring (25) and a lower ring (26), with a plurality of vanes (35) connected to the upper and lower rings and extending axially between the rings.  An electric generator (40) is supported by the rotor foundation.

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The ’978 application is directed to a vertically-oriented wind turbine (20) with a central axis of rotation (21).  The turbine assembly has a generator (24) mounted to a base (23).  A bearing (25) supports the rotor (26) and mounts two sets of three arms each (28, 29, 30), with one set above the other.  Vanes (31, 32, 33) are rigidly attached to the ends of respective arms (28, 29, 30).

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The PacWind acquisition boosts WePOWER’s position in the medium wind market, including its trendy and cleverly named sub-specialty of wind-powered billboard advertising, which the company calls ”windvertising” (see the “windvertising” piece here, the New York Times article here and the Triple Pundit story here).

WePOWER promotes its Windvertiser program on its web site (see here), and owns U.S. Trademark Application No. 77/707,870 for the WINDVERTISER mark for:

Advertising and advertisment services, namely, promoting and marketing the goods and services of third partis, including select clients, on wind turbines and other renewable energy products

Clean Tech Companies to Congress: Proposed Patent Damages Reform Bad for Green Innovation and Jobs

March 25th, 2009

If anyone was wondering what clean technology companies think about the patent reform legislation pending in the U.S. Congress, a March 9, 2009 letter sent to Representatives John Conyers, Jr., the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Lamar Smith, the Ranking Republican on the committee (greentech_patent_reform_ltr.pdf), provides some indication.

The letter was signed by industry groups such as the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), the Biomass Coordinating Council and the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition, as well as individual organizations such as EESTech, Fallbrook Technologies, Southwest Windpower, Ceres, and the Energy and Environmental Research Center.  Other signatories include chemicals giant DuPont, Syngenta, Monsanto and Konarka Technologies as well as Greentech Capital Advisors and patent analytics firm IP Checkups.

A nearly identical letter, signed by PAX Scientific, was sent to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 10th.

The letter asserts that proposed changes to the law of patent damages in the pending legislation would reduce the value of intellectual property rights and could adversely affect the future of the renewable energy industries.

Currently patent infringement damages are calculated by giving equal weight to a variety of factors.  The “entire market value” rule is one tool in the court’s damages toolbox.  It recognizes that the economic value added to a product or process by the patented feature may be greater than that feature alone. 

Thus, the entire market value rule allows for a damages award based on the full value of the infringing product or process where the patented feature provides the basis for customer demand for the entire product or process.  

By contrast, where the patent covers the entire infringing product or process, the law allows apportionment of damages such that only the features credited to the patentable invention (as distinguished from non-patented elements) form the bases of the damages award.

The pending Senate and House bills seek to limit the entire market value rule and elevate the factor of apportionment.  Specifically, the bills would amend section 284 of the patent statute to limit application of the entire market value rule to situations in which the actual invention (i.e., the specific advance over the prior art) forms the basis of consumer demand for the infringing product or process.

This section also would be amended to require that the reasonable royalty an infringer pays to a patent holder is based on “only the portion of the economic value of the infringing product or process propery attributable to the claimed invention’s specific contribution over the prior art.”

The letter argues that reducing patent damage awards would be detrimental to the clean tech sector for two reasons.  First, it would adversely affect funding and slow innovation:

A significant reduction, or elimination of much of the value of the intellectual property that will be generated through this [innovation] process will have an effect on the availability of venture capital required, decreasing the speed at which innovation will occur.

Second, the letter contends that the damages provisions would hinder green job creation:

If the current patent system is modified, making it less costly to infringe on existing or future patent rights, we anticipate that our competitive advantage in the global marketplace will be reduced, impacting the creation of green jobs.

For the moment at least, the signatories seem to have gotten their wish:  the Senate Judiciary Committee has delayed a meeting to discuss the bill amid calls to change the language of the proposed damages provisions.

Checkin’ Up On Green Patents

March 18th, 2009

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IP Checkups, a Berkeley based patent analytics firm, recently released a report analyzing the patent landscape for thermal energy storage technologies used in concentrating solar thermal (CST) systems.  CST systems focus sunlight using lenses, mirrors or tracking systems so the concentrated light can be used as a heat source for a conventional power plant.

The report, entitled Grid-Scale Concentrated Solar Thermal:  Thermal Energy Storage Technologies, identifies the important patents and players in the space and analyzes the level of patent protection, including patent claims assessments and key licensing agreements.

The report covers patents and published applications from 1981 to 2008 from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, the European Patent Office, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the Japanese Patent Office. 

The CST technologies covered are parabolic, fresnel lens, solar tower and dish engine systems, and the storage methods include molten salt, thermocline, phase-change materials, compressed steam, water, concrete, cement, rock, ammonia, carbon dioxide and graphite.

According to the report, United Technologies and its subsidiaries Hamilton-Sundstrand and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne enjoy the broadest patent protection for molten salt thermal storage technology, with Santa Monica based SolarReserve ready to license the technology.  Other players with significant thermal storage patents including Abengoa, Ausra, Bell Independent Power, SkyFuel, Solar Millenium and Yeda Research & Development.

Patent landscape analyses such as IP Checkups’ report can be useful for assessing the competitive landscape in a particular technology area to identify acquisition and licensing candidates and decide where to file patent applications. 

Although there are other firms out there that do patent analytics, including, for example, Sunlight Research and IPriori, when I spoke to Matt Rappaport, a co-author of the report, he told me that IP Checkups’ approach is more “patent-centric” than its competitors.  According to Mr. Rappaport, IP Checkups’ analysis is focused on the scope of patent families, the content of the patents and the breadth of the patent claims.

More information on the report can be found here, and a lightly redacted excerpt demonstrating the types of analyses used can be downloaded here.

In Confident Open Letter, RPI Updates Customers on Remediation Patent Suit

March 15th, 2009

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In a previous post, I wrote about a patent dispute over BOS 100, a reactant used in groundwater remediation that removes chlorine from chlorinated contaminants.  There are two lawsuits involving this technology, both pending in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina in Charlotte. 

In the first suit, Remediation Products, Inc. (RPI), a Golden, Colorado company that makes and sells the BOS 100 product, sued Adventus Americas, Inc. (Adventus) and EnviroMetal Technologies, Inc. (ETI), requesting a declaratory judgment that the BOS 100 does not infringe U.S. Patents Nos. 5,266,213 (’213 patent) and 5,534,154 (’154 patent) and that the patents are invalid (rpi_complaint.pdf).

In the second suit, ETI, the exclusive licensee of several groundwater remediation patents including the ’213 and ’154 patents, along with Adventus (the sub-licensee of the patents), sued AST Environmental, Inc.  and Calgon Carbon Corp. (collectively “Defendants”), 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.

Last month, RPI put out an open letter to its customers to provide an update on its lawsuit aginst Adventus and ETI.  The letter (rpi-letter-to-customers.pdf) states that RPI is also seeking a declaratory judgment of non-infringement of four patents relating to a combination of fibrous organic matter and a multi-valent metal which were asserted by Adventus and ETI.

The letter reports that the court has issued a claim construction order in the case and notes that the claim term “body of metal” was interpreted (rpi_claims_clarification.pdf) to exclude anything other than metal particles:

The Court previously construed the term “body of metal” to mean “a collection of particles of metal into an amount.”  The Court clearly did not include anything other than metal in its construction of the term.  To the extent that the term needs to be clarified, the Court finds that the body of metal does not include anything other than metal particles.  (internal citations omitted)

According to the letter, this interpretation contradicts a position taken by ETI in its 2005 Open Letter to the Remediation Industry which suggested that the use of iron “in combination with other materials” for remediation falls under the company’s “base technology.” 

Moreover, RPI believes it has a strong case on invalidity, the letter explains, because two of the prior art references it is relying on were found to invalidate the Japanese counterpart of the ’213 patent, and those invalidity findings were upheld by the Japanese Supreme Court.

C12 Energy (Continued): Harvard’s International Patent Application Provides More Clues About Stealth Startup

March 11th, 2009

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about C12 Energy (C12), a Cambridge, Massachusetts startup that is apparently working on processes for capturing carbon dioxide by increasing the alkalinity of the ocean, thereby enhancing its ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide.  

I noted that there was no publicly available U.S. patent or published application covering C12′s technology, though the company’s president and chief technology officer, Dr. Kurt Zenz House, published an article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology describing his carbon capture method.

An alert reader pointed out that Dr. House’s CV is available through his homepage, and the CV has a “Patents Filed” heading, under which it lists “Carbon Dioxide Capture and Related Processes” and states:

Primary inventor of a novel chemical process that removes CO2 from the atmosphere and stores it permanently-International patent filed by Harvard University

Indeed, after shifting my focus from U.S. patents and applications to an international search, I was able to locate House’s patent application.  International Application No. PCT/US2007/010032 (’032 application) was filed April 26, 2007 with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and published on February 14, 2008 as WO 2008/018928

The ’032 application lists the owners as Harvard (where Dr. House got his Ph.D.) and the Penn State Research Foundation and claims priority to two U.S. provisional applications (provisional applications are essentially one-year placeholders which are not examined or published by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office).

The ’032 application describes and claims the carbon capture methods discussed in House’s journal article.  Claim 1 broadly recites the invention:

1.  A process for capturing carbon dioxide comprising:

providing water;

processing the water to generate acidic solution and alkaline solution;

neutralizing the acidic solution; and

capturing the carbon dioxide from a source of carbon dioxide with the alkaline solution.

One intriguing aspect of the ’032 application is the synergy with fuel cell technology it claims.  Claim 33 recites an extension of the basic process wherein iron ions produced by neutralizing the acidic solution with reactive species provided from a rock and/or mineral source are oxidized in a fuel cell reaction to produce electricity.

Claim 15 recites another variation whereby the water processing step (to generate acidic solution and alkaline solution) of claim 1 is performed by electrolysis, and the electrolysis produces a halogen gas, a hydrogen gas, and sodium hydroxide.  The resulting halogen gas and hydrogen gas are then reacted in a fuel cell to form the acidic solution and produce electricity.

Another method, recited in claim 36, captures CO2 by reacting it with sodium hydroxide and generates chlorine gas and hydrogen gas.  The hydrogen gas may be oxidized with oxygen either in a hydrogen gas turbine (claim 43) or in a fuel cell (claim 44), in each case forming water and electricity.

The written description of the ’032 application states:

Another benefit of the process is that some of the steps (e.g., the formation of HCl in a fuel cell) produce useful energy that can be used in other aspects of the process.  The energy may be generated, for example, from hydrogen production during the dissolution of reduced minerals (e.g., minerals comprising iron), electricity production through a fuel cell (e.g., FeCl2-HCl-O2; FeCl2-O2), or heat generated during the dissolution of silicate rocks and minerals.  Because the energy cost is a large component of the total cost for most conventional CO2 capture and storage technologies, the low energy cost of the process represents a valuable technological advancement. 

Dr. House’s article together with publication of the ’032 application provides some interesting clues about C12′s technology and business model.  Whatever the company is planning, it wants to do it just about everywhere:  the ’032 application designates countries and regions for patent protection all over the world, including the U.S., Canada, Europe, Eurasia, Africa, China, Japan, Australia and many others.

Unpublished, Unpatented, but not Unimportant: C12 Energy May Use the Ocean to Capture CO2

March 10th, 2009

I’ve realized that limiting my posts to subjects for which there is publicly available intellectual property to discuss sometimes causes me to pass on reporting important technology. 

Thus, a new series – “Unpublished, Unpatented, but not Unimportant” – in which I will periodically report on clean technology developments for which I can’t locate a published patent application (in the U.S., patent applications are published 18 months after they are filed) or an issued patent. 

C12 Energy (C12) is a Cambridge, Massachusetts startup that recently secured a $4.5 million round of funding led by Sequoia Capital.  C12 has not made its plans public, but an article by the company’s president and chief scientist published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology is fueling speculation about a grand plan for carbon capture and sequestration.

Kurt Zenz House’s article, entitled “Electrochemical Acceleration of Chemical Weathering as an Energetically Feasible Approach to Mitigating Anthropogenic Climate Change,” describes a process of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by enhancing the solubility of carbon dioxide in the ocean.

House’s approach involves boosting the alkalinity of the ocean by electrochemically removing its hydrochloric acid and neutralizing the acid through reactions with silicate minerals.  The increase in alkalinity enhances the ocean’s ability to take up atmospheric CO2.  

Carbon dioxide will then dissolve into the ocean and be stored as bicarbonate ion “without further acidifying the ocean.”  According to the article, over time the carbon will be permanently stored in the ocean:

On timescales of hundreds of years or longer, some of the additional alkalinity will likely lead to precipitation or enhanced preservation of CaCO3, resulting in the permanent storage of the associated carbon, and the return of an equal amount of carbon to the atmosphere.

The article explains that the method is “equivalent to the electrochemical acceleration of the Earth’s natural chemical weathering process.” 

I spoke to Dr. House today and asked him if he has filed a patent application on the process.  He told me that C12 is in stealth mode and he couldn’t comment on the company’s IP strategy.  Given the article’s internet publication date of November 7, 2007, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a patent application publish some time between now and early May.

Dr. House has a Ph.D. in Geoscience from Harvard University (see his homepage here).

Ecolite Makes Clean Tech Concrete for Green Buildings

March 4th, 2009

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Ecolite Concrete (Ecolite) is a San Diego company that provides sustainable construction materials using proprietary modeling software and a patent-pending system for making pre-fabricated concrete (read the Sustainable Industries article here)

The manufacturing process starts with project plans developed by the company’s EcoCAD modeling and engineering software, which produces a shop drawing of each wall panel.  Ecolite has filed an application to register the ECOCAD service mark for “computer-aided engineering services for others” (77194288_app.pdf).

The wall panel info is sent to roll-forming machines, where the shop drawing is translated into appropriately sized and marked steel framing members.  The steel members are snapped into place and fastened together into assembled frames forming the composite panels.

These panels are covered by U.S. Patent Application Pub. No. 2007/0062151, entitled “Composite building panel and method of making composite building panel.” 

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Concrete (12) is then poured into the composite panel (10), which includes the frame (14) and has a front face (16) and a rear face (18).  The panel also has a high performance steel lath (not shown) attached to the assembled frames to provide additional strength.  The concrete is then smoothed and cured, and the panels are kept in a storage facility or shipped to the construction site.

The Sustainable Industries piece says that Ecolite’s automated steel system is the first of its kind in the U.S.

It also provides benefits for green builders.  According to the company’s website, Ecolite’s concrete mix is made of about 25% recycled content and Ecolite walls can assist builders in achieving LEED green building ratings for their projects by providing credits in several LEED categories. 

Suntech Slowly Vanquishes an Eco-Mark Outlaw

March 1st, 2009

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In a previous post, I wrote about the trademark troubles of Suntech Power Holdings (“Suntech”), a Chinese solar photovolatic (PV) module provider, who has been fighting an infringing thorn in its side on three continents. 

Suntech owns U.S. Trademark Registration No. 3,111,705 (suntechreg.pdf) (“’705 registration”) for its SUNTECH design mark (pictured above) for:

Solar batteries; electric accumulators for vehicles; accumulator boxes; battery boxes; plates for batteries; batteries for lighting; batteries; battery chargers; galvanic batteries; electric batteries

Suntech also has common law rights to the word mark SUNTECH in connection with solar PV modules and building integrated PV and has an application pending in the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office for the mark (suntechapp.pdf).  

Hong Kong based Shenzhen Xintian Solar Technology Co. and its subsidiary Sun Tech Solar (collectively “Sun Tech Solar”), have been using the trademarks SUN TECH and SUN TECH SOLAR in connection witht the sale of solar modules similar to Suntech’s products and operating a web site at the address www.solarsuntech.com.   

Last month Suntech announced that it had been granted a preliminary injunction (PI) in Germany.   The PI prohibits Sun Tech Solar and its distributors from selling “Suntech” brand solar products (see the earth2tech story here). 

The news release says there have been only ”isolated cases” of imitation products sold and suggests that knockoffs can be identified by closely comparing the logos and product names on the products sold with the genuine logos and names on the Suntech website.

Germany isn’t the only market where Suntech has enforced its trademark rights against fakes made by Sun Tech Solar.  As discussed previously in this space, Suntech sued its rival last year in San Diego for alleged infringement of the ’705 registration and its unregistered SUNTECH word mark.

In that case, the court granted a preliminary injunction (suntech_pi_order.pdf) ordering Sun Tech Solar to cease all use of the SUN TECH and SUN TECH SOLAR marks as well as any other confusingly similar marks in connection with solar modules in the U.S.  The injunction order came about a week before Sun Tech Solar was to show its wares at the Solar Power International 2008 Trade Show in San Diego.

But the company thumbed its nose at the court and its rival by displaying the SUN TECH SOLAR mark on its signs and promotional material at the Trade Show anyway and refusing to cease the infringing activity even after being served with a copy of the preliminary injunction.  The court found Sun Tech Solar in civil contempt and ordered the seizure of the infringing materials (suntech_seizure_order.pdf).

That suit ultimately resulted in a default judgment and a permanent injunction against Sun Tech Solar (suntech_default_order.pdf) because of the company’s continuing infringement and refusal to even show up in court.  The default order stated:

The Defendant has made it clear that it does not intend to cease infringing Plaintiff’s trademarks and refuses to acknowledge this litigation.

Even if Sun Tech Solar had hired attorneys, they wouldn’t have had much to work with on the law or the equities considering the infringer’s outlaw behavior.