Archive for April, 2010

DOE and EPA Try to Restore Energy Star’s Shine

April 28th, 2010

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I’ve written before about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Energy Star program, which promotes investment in energy efficient products by providing information that consumers and investors can use to research and compare green product or project choices.

The EPA works with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) 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).

Certification marks differ from ordinary trademarks in that they certify that goods or services meet certain quality or manufacturing standards instead of indicating the commercial source of a product.  Certification marks are owned by the organizations that set the standards and used by companies that meet the standards and earn the certifications.

The certifying organizations are responsible for formulating, administering and policing their certification standards.  Failing to do so can undermine the credibility and damage the reputation of the organization and its certification.

The EPA and DOE recently announced that they would expand testing and enforcement to strengthen the Energy Star program.  This comes as the program’s star has dimmed after publication of a study performed by Congressional auditors at the Government Accountability Office to test the program’s certification process (see NY Times article here).

The GAO auditors created fictitious companies and sought Energy Star status for some conventional and unconventional devices, submitting phony data purporting to show the products were energy efficient.  Among the study’s highlights (or lowlights, as it were):

most of the products, including a “gasoline-powered alarm clock” and an ”air purifier” consisting of a feather duster pasted on top of a space heater, were approved without challenge

some approvals were issued by an automated system without human review

once a company got approval for one product and became an Energy Star partner, the company could download the logo and paste it on products that had not been approved

As part of the overhaul, DOE recently began testing the six most commonly used appliances – freezers, refrigerator-freezers, clothes washers, dishwashers, water heaters and room air conditioners – and, with the EPA, is developing a system to test all products that earn the Energy Star label. 

In addition, DOE and EPA will require manufactureres to participate in an ongoing verification testing program to ensure continued compliance and are stepping up enforcement by taking action against manufacturers whose products do not comply with the requisite standards.

Like all certification marks and programs, the Energy Star brand is only as good as its administration and policing so let’s hope it regains its shine.

Electrovaya’s SuperPolymer is Ram Tough

April 23rd, 2010

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Electrovaya is an Ontario, Canada company that makes advanced batteries and battery systems.

Last month Electrovaya announced that it was selected by Chrysler as the battery supplier for the carmaker’s Ram plug-in hybrid electric vehicle demonstration program.  The Ram PHEV will use Electrovaya’s 12kWh lithium ion battery.

One of Electrovaya’s major innovations is its SuperPolymer brand battery technology, which the company’s web site calls “a novel nanostructured lithium ion polymer technology platform.”  This technology provides faster, more efficient transport of lithium, and therefore greater energy density, according to Electrovaya.

According to Electrovaya’s web site, the company has over 150 patents and pending applications worldwide.  One key patent is U.S. Patent No. 7,588,862 (’862 Patent), which relates to the polymer technology.

The ’862 Patent is entitled “Composite polymer electrolytes for a rechargeable lithium battery” and is directed to a composite electrolyte for use in thin plate rechargeable lithium batteries.  The electrolyte may be a solid laminate or a separator sheet to act as a barrier between the positive and negative electrodes of the battery.

A separator embodiment comprises an inert porous or micro-porous polymer laminate (12) coated with a polymer coating (14) containing a dissociable lithium compound.  The polymer coating is on the exposed surface of the laminate (12) and, during the coating process, partially flows into some of the pores (15) of the laminate (12). 

The separator could have just one face of the laminate (12) coated with the second polymer (14), as shown here, or could have both faces coated. 

The portion of unfilled pores (15) can be filled with a desired lithium salt containing organic solution (16).  Electrodes (18, 18′) are in contact with the separator laminate (12).  Current collectors (20, 20′) are located on the external surfaces of electrodes (18, 18′).

According to the ’862 Patent, existing solid polymer electrolyte laminates had higher concentrations of dissociable lithium ions, but they frequently had low mechanical strength. 

The patented electrolyte boosts a battery’s energy density by increasing the concentration of dissociable lithium ions per unit volume in the electrolyte while maintaining the mechanical strength of the laminate:

It has now been found that the amount of dissociable lithium ions can be increased without increasing the thickness of the electrolyte, and simultaneously providing desirable mechanical strength and integrity…

Grid Net Attracts Big Name Investors, Leaves Policy to Utilities

April 19th, 2010

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Greentech Media recently reported that Cisco has joined Intel and GE in making equity investments in broadband smart grid startup Grid Net.

According to Grid Net’s web site, the company’s “software platforms provide an online, real-time view and control of the Smart Grid network.” 

The company’s PolicyNet software centralizes management and control of “enterprise policies,” AKA business rules, that can be used in connection with millions of smart grid devices. 

Grid Net owns a couple of U.S. patent applications, including Application Pub. No. 2008/0219239 (’239 Application), which appears to cover the PolicyNet product.

The ’239 Application is entitled “Policy-based utility networking” and is directed to systems and methods for policy-based networking of an electric grid. 

The ’239 Application describes a policy-based residential networked meter such as an energy switch router device.  To make your head spin for just a moment, the application says the device:

serves as an essential internetworked, intelligent, sensor, meter, recorder, controller, policy enforcer, and service delivery platform device that is coupled to a predictive, self-adaptive, self-optimizing, fault-sensing, self-healing, and secure intelligent electric grid infrastructure

Got all that?  Essentially, the disclosed policy networking system allows a utility company to integrate many different smart grid and metering features into a single device. 

The utility can then control and manage it all according to its chosen “policy,” i.e., the rules, conditions and actions the utility implements for, say, optimizing the energy efficiency of its customers.

Partial and full acquisitions of smart grid startups are increasingly commonplace.  Another Greentech Media article reported that EnerNoc also bought a few startups recently, including a Colorado energy management startup called SmallFoot.

Philips Targets PixelRange with Multiple Multicolor LED Patents

April 15th, 2010

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Koninklijke Philips Electronics and Philips Solid State Lighting Solutions (collectively “Philips”) sued Pixelrange and UK lighting company James Thomas Engineering last month, accusing the defendants of infringing six patents relating to LED systems. 

The complaint (philips_dmass_complaint.pdf), filed in Massachusetts district court, lists U.S. Patent Nos. 6,250,774 (’250,774 Patent), 6,016,038 (’038 Patent), 6,150,774 (’150,774 Patent), 6,806,659 (’659 Patent), 6,788,011 (’011 Patent) and 6,975,079 (’079 Patent) and alleges that the PixelLine Micro W product (shown above) infringes the asserted patents.

The ’250,774 patent is entitled ”Luminaire” and is directed to an LED package for street lighting that uses the generated light more efficiently. 

According to the patent, a major disadvantage of some existing luminaires is that the light doesn’t concentrate well into a beam and therefore a substantial percentage of the light projects outside the area or object to be illuminated.

The patented technology solves this problem and reduces energy use by focusing the individual beams of multiple LED lighting units such that each narrow beam only hits a portion of the area or object. 

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The claimed luminaire (1) (shown above) has a housing (10), a light emission window (11) and a set of lighting units (20), each having at least one LED chip (30) and an optical system (40), with the lighting units illuminating respective portions of an object.

The ’038, ’150,774, ’659 and ’011 Patents comprise a chain of related patents entitled “Multicolored LED lighting method and apparatus” and are directed to computer controlled multicolored LED networks. 

According to these patents, the inventions overcome some of the problems associated with integrating multiple LEDs of different colors, intensity levels and power ratings.

These patents describe a pulse width modulated current control where each lighting unit is uniquely addressable via a controller and capable of receiving illumination color information on a computer lighting network.  

Multiple integrated circuits at respective nodes are operatively connected to a light module (100) with LED sets (120, 140, 160), which each contain a series or parallel array of LEDs of various colors.

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The ’079 Patent, entitled “Systems and mehtods for controlling illumination sources,” relates to methods of providing control signals for LED lighting systems to control light output.  The methods can take into account the response of a viewer to different light output levels and convert data inputs to output control signals that adjust the light output levels accordingly.

I Want My MTPV: Recovering Waste Heat By Micron-Gap Thermal Photovoltaics

April 11th, 2010

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I read an interesting article in The Economist’s most recent Technology Quarterly about new ways to recycle waste heat from power plants and other types of machinery such as computers. 

In the power generation context this typically is done using a heat recovery unit to capture heat from a combustion unit’s exhaust stream.

Another way to way to recycle waste heat is to capture infrared radiation emitted by hot objects using photovoltaic cells. 

The difficulty with this approach is that only photons that travel at a near perfect right angle to the surface of the hot material can escape and be picked up by PV cells.  Photons traveling at any other angle are reflected back inside the material.

One of the companies profiled in the Economist article is Boston, Massachusetts startup MTPV Corporation (MTPV), which takes its name from an acronym for a technology called micron-gap thermal photovoltaics. 

MTPV discovered that by placing PV cells just a few hundred nanometers from a hot surface of silicon carbide alloy - so the gap is smaller than the wavelength of the infrared radiation - the photons are not reflected inward but instead continue to travel into the PV cells.

According to MTPV’s web site, U.S. Patent No. 6,084,173 (’173 Patent), entitled “Method and apparatus for the generation of charged carriers in semiconductor devices,” is its “fundamental” patent on the micron-gap technology. 

The ’173 Patent is directed to methods of enhancing electrical current generation in a conductive surface by adjusting the gap between a hot surface and the conductive surface to the order of microns or submicrons.

The MTPV web site describes U.S. Patent No. 6,232,546 (’546 Patent) as a version 1 “implementation” patent.  The ’546 Patent is entitled “Microcavity apparatus and systems for maintaining a microcavity over a macroscale area” and is directed to a microscale generator (10) having two elements (14, 16) within a vacuum (12).  

The first element (14) acts as a thermal source for transferring energy and a second facing element (16) receives the energy transferred.

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Moveable panels (18) are disposed on one of the elements.  The panels (18) are thermally coupled to element (14) and spaced from facing element (16) a predetermined, sub-micron distance to efficiently couple the energy between the elements so it can be converted to electricity.

To maintain and control the requisite sub-micron distance between the elements, each individual panel includes spring-like actuating flexures (20).  These flexures (20) urge each panel (18) towards facing element (16) to maintain the predetermined sub-micron spacing between the elements.

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Each panel (18) has its own flexures (20) so the panels act independently of each other to conform to and compensate for surface variations in element (16).

In addition to the ’173 and ’546 Patents, MTPV owns U.S. Patent Applications Pub. Nos. 2008/0060694, 2009/0188549 and 2009/0277488.  According to the company’s web site MTPV continues to innovate and grow its patent portfolio:

The intellectual property continues to extend with six pending patent applications and over fifty disclosures in addition to ongoing research and development efforts.

Samsung, Toshiba et al. Accused of Infringing Energy Conservation Circuit Patent

April 1st, 2010

A company called Commonwealth Research Group LLC (Commonwealth) filed a patent infringement suit last month against a number of technology companies, accusing them of infringing a patent relating to an energy saving system for electronic devices.

The complaint (commonwealth_complaint.pdf), filed in federal court in Delaware, asserts U.S. Patent No. 6,026,493 (’493 Patent) against Samsung, Toshiba, NXP Semiconductors and Renesas Technology.

The ’493 Patent is directed to electronic circuitry that conserves energy by turning off or reducing power to selected chip components.  A disclosed embodiment involving powering a tape recorder is shown below.  The embodiment comprises a circuit having two relays (12, 18).

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In its normal position, the second relay (18) supplies continuous power to the power bus.  The first relay (12) is designed to lock open as long as power is maintained on the power bus.   

Tape sensor prongs (27) momentarily connect on a passing cassette tape (26) to energize the second relay (18).  When the second relay (18) is energized, the power bus loses power, and the first relay (12) returns to the normal position with no power supplied to the tape recorder (14).

It is unclear from the complaint who or what Commonwealth is.  The complaint does not say anything about the company except that it is a Virginia corporation that owns all rights to the ’493 Patent. 

The only other information I could find on the internet was through a search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office assignments database, which lists a Washington, DC address for Commonwealth. 

Commonwealth has requested a preliminary and permanent injunction, which would require the company to explain how it’s been harmed by the alleged infringement.  More details are likely to come out at that time.