Green Patent Blog is on vacation.
I guess it was just a matter of time before this clean tech icon became the subject of greenwashing claims. In a complaint filed last month in federal court in Oakland, California, pro se plaintiff and disgruntled Prius owner Kenneth Bernstein accuses Toyota of greenwashing by misrepresenting the car’s fuel economy.
Bernstein states that he bought a Prius in 2006 because the salesman told him that the car got between 55 and 60 miles per gallon. After driving 95,000 miles, Bernstein alleges that his Prius has averaged only about 32 mpg.
According to the complaint (bernstein_complaint.pdf), Toyota advertised fuel efficiency figures of 55 mpg for the Prius when it knew or should have known that the actual fuel efficiency achieved “under normal driving conditions” was substantially lower:
Toyota advertised [the Prius] with false statements of its fuel efficiency and the cost saving realizable from its purchase, specifically, advertising the remarkable overall fuel efficiency of 55 Miles Per Gallon of gasoline . . . when Toyota knew, or by the exercise of reasonable care should have know (sic), but omitted to state, that such statements were untrue, deceptive, or materially misleading, and that the actual performance for [the Prius] is and was up to 42% below the miles per gallon of fuel efficiency or cost savings that Toyota advertised.
Bernstein alleges that Toyota continues to market the model years 2004-07 Prius using old and inaccurate fuel economy numbers despite subsequent changes in the EPA’s testing guidelines that resulted in lower fuel economy for the 2008 model year.
Bernstein also contends that Toyota impermissibly and deceptively altered federally mandated disclaimer language regarding fuel efficiency numbers and sometimes omitted the disclaimer altogether.
Unfortunately for Bernstein, in an August 7, 2009 Order (bernstein_order.pdf) Judge Marilyn Hall Patel dismissed the complaint because it failed to properly allege any basis for federal jurisdiction.
Specifically, the complaint alleged diversity jurisdiction but failed to allege that the plaintiff and defendants are citizens of different states, and the complaint contained no grounds for federal question jurisdiction because it did not make any claims under a federal statute.
I talked to Bernstein briefly, and he may try to cure the deficiencies of his complaint and re-file in federal court. Another option would be to file in California state court, where a very similar greenwashing suit involving the Honda Civic hybrid is currently pending.
Some of the allegations here are very similar to those at issue in the Honda case, in which the plaintiff accused Honda of false advertising for stating that consumers can drive the Civic hybrid like they would a “conventional car” and achieve “terrific gas mileage.”
Sipco LLC (Sipco) is an Atlanta, Georgia-based developer of wireless mesh technology.
Last month Sipco sued Florida Power & Light Co. and FPL Group Inc. (collectively “FPL”) in federal court in Miami, alleging that the wireless network technology in the utility’s smart grid system infringes three Sipco patents relating to smart grid technology. According to the complaint (sipco_complaint.pdf), the infringing technology is being used as part of the Energy Smart Miami initiative to implement smart grid technology in Miami-Dade County.
The family of patents-in-suit comprises U.S. Patent Nos. 6,437,692, 7,053,767 and 7,468,661, each entitled “System and method for monitoring and controlling remote devices” (collectively “Sipco Patents”).
The Sipco Patents are directed to cost effective methods and systems for collecting, formatting and monitoring data from remote devices. A control system (200) consists of one or more sensor/actuators (212, 214, 216, 222, 224) each integrated with a (preferably RF, or radio frequency) transceiver. The control system also includes stand-alone transceivers (211, 213, 215, 221).
The integrated and stand-alone transceivers (211, 213, 215, 221) are configured to receive an incoming RF transmission (from remote devices) and to transmit an outgoing signal. Local gateways (210, 220) receive remote data transmissions from the integrated or stand-alone transceivers (211, 213, 215, 221), analyze the transmissions, convert them into TCP/IP format for internet transmission and communicate the transmissions via wide area network, or WAN (230).
According to the Sipco Patents, having the local gateways (210, 220) permanently integrated with the WAN (230) allows the server (260) to host application specific software that previously had to be hosted in application specific local controllers. The Sipco Patents explain:
…the data monitoring and control devices of the present invention need not be disposed in a permanent location as long as they remain within signal range of a system compatible transceiver that subsequently is within signal range of a local gateway interconnected through one or more networks to server 260.
The patented system avoids the expense of installing and connecting local networks of sensors, actuators and controllers, as was previously done in control system solutions for distributed systems.
The complaint alleges willful infringement and seeks treble damages and injunctive relief.
In a previous post I discussed a patent infringement suit between Palo Alto nanotechnology company Nanosys and its Manchester, U.K. rival, Nanoco Technologies (Nanoco), involving Nanoco’s quantum dot technology.
In that suit, Nanosys alleged that Nanoco and Nanoco’s U.S. distributor, Sigma-Aldrich, were infringing U.S. Patent Nos. 6,861,155 (’155 patent), 6,322,901 (’901 patent), 7,125,605 (’605 patent, 6,821,337 (’337 patent) and 7,138,098 (’098 patent) by making and selling quantum dot technology sold under the brand name Lumidots (nanosys_complaint.pdf).
Quantum dots are nano-scale semiconductors that emit near-monochromatic light when subjected to light or electrical stimulation. Among the many applications of quantum dots are diode lasers, LEDs and solar cells.
Last month Nanosys announced that it had reached a settlement with Nanoco. According to the press release, Nanoco agreed to terminate its Lumidots business in the U.S. but did not admit infringement or validity of the asserted patents.
The asserted patents include two patent families: the ’155, ’901 and ’605 patents are entitled ”Highly luminescent color selective nanocrystalline materials” and are directed to nanocrystal particles having a semiconductor core and a semiconductor coating that emit light in a narrow spectral range. The core consists of cadmium sulfur, cadmium selenium or cadmium tellurium, and the coating is zinc sulfur or zinc selenium.
The ’337 and ’098 patents, entitled”Preparation of nanocrystallites,” are directed to nanocrystallite manufacturing methods. The ’337 patent describes the method as follows:
The method includes contacting a metal, M, or an M-containing salt, and a reducing agent to form an M-containing precursor, M being Cd, Zn, Mg, Hg, Al, GA, In or Tl. The M-containing precursor is contacted with an X-donor, X being O, S, Se, Te, N, P, As, or Sb. The mixture is then heated in the presence of an amine to form the nanocrystallite.
In the hybrid vehicle patent war between hybrid technology company Paice LLC (Paice) and Toyota Motor Corp. (Toyota), Paice has withdrawn from one front after the parties reached a very limited truce.
Specifically, Paice agreed to a covenant not to assert U.S. Patent No. 5,343,970 (’970 patent) against the Lexus GS450h and the Lexus LS600h and recently filed a Second Amended Complaint (paice-amended-complaint.pdf) in a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Texas dropping allegations that the two Lexus models infringe the ’970 patent.
The suit, which Paice originally filed in July of 2007, now alleges that the Toyota Camry hybrid infringes the ’970 patent and that the second generation Prius, the Highlander SUV, the Lexus RX400h SUV, the Camry hybrid and the two other Lexus models infringe the ’970 patent as well as U.S. Patent Nos. 7,104,347 and 7,237,634.
The ’970 patent is directed to a hybrid drive train that uses a microprocessor (48) and a controllable torque transfer unit (28) that accepts torque input from both an internal combustion engine (40) and an electric motor (20).
The microprocessor (48) controls the amount of torque provided by the internal combustion engine (40) and the electric motor (20) by locking or releasing a bevel gear assembly (not shown) and holding torque inputs constant.
Paice and Toyota have an ongoing history of litigation over Paice’s hybrid vehicle patents. In the fall of 2007, the Federal Circuit affirmed a jury verdict that the Prius, Highlander and Lexus SUV infringed two claims of the ’970 patent under the doctrine of equivalents.
In that case Paice was awarded about $4.3 million in past damages and an ongoing royalty of $98 per infringing vehicle sold. Paice later sued Toyota again, asserting that the Highlander and Lexus SUV infringed U.S. Patent No. 7,392,871.
In a previous post, I wrote about the U.S. International Trade Commission’s (ITC) investigation of six companies based in China and Taiwan, prompted by a complaint by retired Columbia University Professor and LED innovator Gertrude Neumark Rothschild. In the complaint, Rothschild asserted infringement of U.S. Patent No. 5,252,499 (’499 patent) relating to LED manufacturing methods.
The Notice of Investigation named Chi Mei Lighting Technology Corp., Tekcore Co. Ltd., Toyolite Technologies Corp., Tyntek Corp., Visual Photonics Epitaxy Co. and Xiamen Sanan Optoelectronics Technology (“Xiamen”).
The ITC recently let the investigation against Xiamen come to end when it ruled that it would not review the decision of an adminstrative law judge (ALJ) to end the investigation (xiamen_order.pdf). The ALJ’s decision followed Xiamen’s request to terminate the investigation in view of a proposed consent order.
In the consent order, Xiamen, without admitting infringement or validity of the ’499 patent, agreed not to import LED and laser diode chips that allegedly infringe the ’499 patent. The consent order also provided that it would be nullified if the ’499 patent were to be held invalid or unenforceable in a final decision by any administrative or judicial body.
The ’499 patent is directed to methods of making LEDs capable of emitting short wavelength (green or blue) light. The patent addresses the problem of “doping” wide band gap semiconductor materials, an essential step in creating adequate conductance for the materials to function as LEDs. Doping means adding impurities to a semiconductor to increase the number of free charge carriers.
Rothschild has aggressively asserted the ’499 patent and U.S. Patent No. 4,904,618 in recent years. Last year Rothschild filed a complaint in the ITC naming more than 25 respondents, including electronics giants Hitachi, LG, Matsushita, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba. At least eight companies have taken licenses to her patents.
Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SGI) is a San Diego biotech company that develops biofuels using genetic engineering and other genomic and microbiological techniques.
Last month SGI announced that it has entered a multi-year research and development agreement with ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company (EMRE) to develop next generation biofuels using photosynthetic algae. According to SGI’s press release, total funding for R & D and milestone payments could total more than $300 million.
SGI will use its proprietary tools and technologies in genomics, metagenomics, synthetic genomics and genome engineering to develop superior strains of algae for commercial scale production of biofuels. SGI owns several pending patent applications relating to these tools and technologies.
U.S. Application No. 2007/0264688 (’688 application) is entitled “Synthetic genomes” and is directed to methods of constructing synthetic genomes and introducing them into vesicles (cells or synthetic membrane-bound “cells”).
The ’688 application describes generating small nucleic acid fragments, assembling them into cassettes, cloning the cassettes, assembling the cassettes into a genome, and transferring the synthetic genome into a biochemical system. The end products produced by the biochemical systems have various applications such as energy sources (e.g., hydrogen or ethanol), therapeutics and industrial polymers.
According to the ’688 application, selection and construction of synthetic genome sequences (as opposed to conventional genetic engineering techniques) allows for easier manipulation of genetic sequences and construction of novel organisms and biological systems.
U.S. Application No. 2007/0269862 (’862 application) is directed to methods for installing a genome into a cell or cell-like system. The genome may comprise supercoiled nucleic acid molecules (102) with scaffolding proteins (104). The nucleic acids may also have ribosomes (106).
The supercoiled nucleic acid molecules (102) may be accompanied by small molecules (108) and single stranded nucleic acid molecules (110). The genomes are introduced into a membrane bound aqueous volume (112) such as a lipid vesicle.
Claim 1 of the ’862 application is rather broad:
1. A method for making a synthetic cell, the method comprising:
obtaining a genome that is not within a cell; and
introducing the genome into a cell or cell-like system.
U.S. Application No. 2009/0176280 is directed to a method for isothermal amplification of small amounts of DNA or cell-free cloning of the DNA.
Other SGI pending applications include U.S. Application Pub. No. 2007/0037196 and U.S. Application Pub. No. 2007/0037197 (relating to in vitro methods for joining two double-stranded DNA molecules) and U.S. Application No. 2007/0122826 (relating to a minimal essential gene set that codes for a free-living organism).
One theme that runs throughout SGI’s portfolio of patent applications is impatience with the limits of existing genetic engineering methods and a desire for better techniques to shatter those limits, which SGI may have found in its synthetic genome technology. This “Description of the Related Art” from the ’688 application captures that sentiment:
Conventional genetic engineering techniques are limited to allowing manipulation of existing sequences. It would thus be desirable to have the ability to implement dramatic alterations and arrangements of genetic content, beyond that made possible by conventional techniques. Consequently, there is a need for synthetic genomes.
Rentech, Inc. (Rentech) is a Los Angeles company that provides clean energy solutions including biomass gasification technology and processes for converting synthetic gas (syngas) into synthetic jet fuel and diesel fuels.
Last month Rentech announced that it had completed the acquisition of Atlanta-based SilvaGas Corporation (SilvaGas) and SilvaGas’s commercial-scale biomass gasification technology, which converts urban waste feedstocks into syngas.
According to the press release, the acquisition will enable Rentech to offer integrated packages for renewable fuels and power production by combining the SilvaGas gasification technology with Rentech’s syngas conversion, conditioning and cleanup technology.
The SilvaGas patent portfolio includes several patents and pending applications relating to high-throughput gasifier technology. The original SilvaGas process was protected by U.S. Patent No. 4,828,581 (’581 patent), entitled “Low input gas velocity high throughput biomass gasifier”. The ’581 patent expired in 2006.
The ’581 patent describes a process of rapidly heating biomass with hot sand using a reactor that has a fluid bed of sand. According to the ’581 patent:
This invention comprises the unexpected discovery that it is possible to gasify biomass at very high wood throughputs but in an entrained gasifier operating at low inlet gas velocities.
Entrained gasifiers perform gasification reactions in a cloud of fine particles, which can be solids, atomized liquid fuels or fuel slurries.
Another key SilvaGas patent is U.S. Patent No. 6,613,111 (’111 patent), entitled “Small scale high throughput biomass gasification system and method”. The ’111 patent is directed to a high-throughput combination gasifier and combustor wherein the gasifier is concentrically housed within the combustor.
The gasifier system includes a gasifier (102) and a combustor (118). The combustor (118) acts as a source of heat to drive the gasification reactions in the gasifier (102). The gasifier (102) and combustor (118) transfer heat and materials to each other via circulation of a particulate inert material, such as sand, which is fluidized by gas flowing through the material.
A fluidizing gas inlet (110) provides a flow of gas into the gasifier (102), and gas exits the gasifier at exit (112), flows through a separator (114), and exits as product gas through product gas exit (116). Biomass feedstock is introduced through the entry opening (106), and the particulate material travels from the combustor (118) into the gasifier (102) through a recirculation opening (108).
According to the ’111 patent, the arrangement of the gasifier (102) concentrically within the combustor (102) minimizes heat loss from the surface of the gasifier and improves the efficiency of the system. This helps to make the patented system suitable for small scale gasification having a relatively low feedstock input rate.
Most of the other SilvaGas patents and applications are directed to improvements or variations of these core technologies, including U.S. Patent No. 6,808,543 (methods for reducing ash agglomeration, reducing erosion and facilitating sand flow), U.S. Patent No. 6,680,137 (an energy system connecting a gasifier and a combustor to a fuel cell) and U.S. Application Pub. No. 2008/0022592 (a more efficient gasification system having certain diameter and height specs).
Previously, I wrote about Kruse Technology Partnership’s (“Kruse”) patent infringement suits against Isuzu and DMAX, Ltd. (“DMAX”), an Ohio diesel engine manufacturer formed as a joint venture between General Motors (GM) and Isuzu (see the DMAX post here and the Isuzu post here).
Last month Kruse filed a third lawsuit, rounding out the trio of infringement actions by targeting GM. The complaint (kruse-v-gm-complaint.pdf), filed in federal court in Los Angeles, asserts the same patents and alleges that GM’s diesel engines infringe the patents.
The asserted patents are directed to Kruse’s “Limited Temperature Cycle” technology, which reduces combustion temperature, boosts thermal efficiency and reduces certain chemical emissions by diesel engines by injecting fuel in multiple increments.
The patents describe an engine (10) comprising a block (12), a cylinder head (14) and a cylinder (16) having a piston (18). Fuel is supplied to the engine (10) by a fuel injection system (36). The engine (10) also includes an air induction system (26) having an air intake valve (28) in the cylinder head (14).
The process maintains a proper fuel/air mix in the engine to reduce the temperature and the work of compression. According to the ’904 patent, the fuel injection system (36) precisely regulates this fuel/air mixture for combustion and exhaust emission control.
The complaint requests that the court issue a permanent injunction against GM and award Kruse treble damages for willful infringement.