Archive for August, 2010

Consumer Watchdog Quashes Solar Greenwash Down Under

August 27th, 2010

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In a case of successful public enforcement against greenwashing, two solar panel retailers have amended their ads after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) found their marketing statements potentially misleading and deceptive (see the Smart Company article here and the Ecogeneration piece here).

According to the ACCC, Queensland Solar Systems and State Solar Services admitted their ads had likely violated the Australian Trade Practices Act.

The advertising statements at issue included a claim that a 1.5 kilowatt system would “wipe out” a household electricity bill when a system of that output would actually generate only about a third of the energy needs for most homes.

Other claims related to pricing and misled consumers about discounted rates and the periods when discounts were available. 

In particular, the companies did not make clear that certain discounts were available only to customers who were eligible for renewable energy certificates offered by the Australian government.

Both companies will be required to publish corrective notices in regional newspapers, an industry magazine and on the companies’ web sites.  They will also have to contact past customers to inform them of the companies’ conduct and set up a compliance program.

The ACCC has had other notable successes in policing greenwashing. 

In 2008, a probe by the consumer watchdog agency forced Goodyear to admit that it could not substantiate advertising claims that its Eagle LS2000 tire has “minimal environmental impact,” improves fuel economy and is produced by a process that results in reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

Sundrop’s Solar Gasification Uses Total Concentration

August 23rd, 2010

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Sundrop Fuels (Sundrop) is a Colorado company that combines concentrated solar power (CSP) technology with biofuels production processes. 

While most biomass-to-biofuels systems burn the feedstocks as the first step in biofuel production, Sundrop uses concentrated solar energy to gasify the feedstocks into syngas that is made into advanced biofuels.  According to the company’s web site, the very high temperatures of CSP create efficiencies in the process:

At the center of the Sundrop Fuels process is our proprietary Surroundsun technology, a solar-thermal biomass gasifier that generates temperatures of more than 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,370 degrees Fahrenheit) from the concentrated power of thousands of solar heliostat mirrors.  Using solar energy to drive the endothermic gasification reaction ensures the most efficient use of biomass feedstock to produce liquid advanced biofuels like renewable “green” gasoline.

Sundrop owns at least one U.S. patent and two pending U.S. patent applications relating to its solar gasification technology.   

U.S. Patent No. 7,140,181 (’181 Patent), is entitled “Reactor for solar processing of slightly-absorbing or transparent gases” and is directed to methods for solar powered processing of gases.

The methods described in the ’181 Patent comprise directing concentrated sunlight through an aperture (202) into a spherical chamber (203), where the energy is partially absorbed by the walls (201) of the chamber and partially reflected. 

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Process gas is pumped into the chamber (203) through the aperture (202) and heated by contact with the walls (201) and by infrared radiation from the walls so the gas partially dissociates. 

The gas exits through exit holes (204) and is quickly cooled by its contact with cooling surface (205) to prevent recombination.  It then flows out exhaust tube (206).

Sundrop’s two published patent applications are U.S. Application Pub. No. 2009/0313886, entitled ”Various methods and apparatus for solar assisted chemical and energy processes” (’886 Application) and U.S. Application Pub. No. 2010/0000874, entitled “Various methods and apparatus for solar assisted fuel production” (’874 Application).

The ’886 and ’874 Applications are directed to solar assisted water splitting processes and apparatus to supply synthesis gas for creating a hydrocarbon liquid fuel.  A watter splitter (102) supplies H2 gas to a reverse water gas shift (RWGS) unit (104) that generates synthesis gas for production of liquid fuel such as methanol.   

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The RWGS unit (104) includes a  reverse water gas shift reactor (106) and a liquid fuel synthesis reactor (108) that forms methanol from carbon dioxide hydrogenation. 

A field of heliostats (134), or sun tracking mirrors, reflects sunlight onto the heat exchanger (122) through window (138) in the RWGS unit (104).  The solar energy drives the water splitting process.

According to this Ecogeek piece, by using concentrated solar energy Sundrop’s process more than doubles the yield of fuel that can be produced using ordinary biomass burning processes to 100-125 gallons of fuel per ton of biomass.

From Preclusion to Conclusion: Paice and Toyota Settle Hybrid Vehicle Patent Suits

August 18th, 2010

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After six years of legal wrangling in U.S. courts and the International Trade Commission (ITC) over hybrid vehicle patents, Paice and Toyota recently announced that they have settled their disputes.

Although the terms of the agreement are confidential, the reports and statements of people involved reveal two interesting elements of the deal.

First, a compromise statement reported in a PR Newswire article tactfully notes Toyota’s infringement of Paice’s U.S. Patent No. 5,343,970 (’970 Patent) on the one hand and its independent development of the technology on the other hand:

The parties agree that, although certain Toyota vehicles have been found to be equivalent to a Paice patent, Toyota invented, designed and developed the Prius and Toyota’s hybrid technology independent of any inventions of [Paice founder] Dr. Severinsky and Paice as part of Toyota’s long history of innovation. 

Second, and more significantly, Toyota took a license to Paice’s entire patent portfolio.  According to this Forbes.com piece, the chair of Paice’s Board, Frances M. Keenan, said that “Toyota had agreed to license all 23 of Paice’s patents, not just the one at issue in the ITC claim.” 

The court clashes date back to a patent infringement suit filed by Paice in 2004 in which Toyota was held liable for infringing the ’970 Patent under the doctrine of equivalents.  After being awarded an ongoing royalty of $98 per infringing vehicle, Paice turned its attention to the ITC where it could obtain an exclusion order against Toyota.

Most recently, the adminstrative law judge (ALJ) presiding over the ITC case denied Toyota’s motion for summary determination that the ITC investigation was barred by claim preclusion. 

The ALJ held that Paice was not precluded from pursuing its case in the ITC because the exclusion order was not available to Paice in the district court action and is a materially different remedy from the injunctive relief offered by the courts.

As a result of the license agreement, Paice will receive a revenue stream from Toyota for a while: the last patent under license expires in 2019.

Green Patent Acquisitions: BP Buys Verenium’s Biofuels Business

August 13th, 2010

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Last month Verenium announced that BP Biofuels North America would acquire its cellulosic biofuels business for $98.3 million.  

Verenium will retain its commercial enzyme business and maintain rights to its biofuels enzyme products.  In addition, it will have the right to access select biofuels technology that BP develops using the acquired technology and to develop its own cellulosic enzyme program.

The purchase includes Verenium’s  pilot plant and demo-scale facility in Jennings, Louisiana and its R&D facilities in San Diego.

As to intellectual property assets, the Verenium press release says that BP will acquire Verenium’s “cellulosic biofuels technology and related IP” and “cellulosic enzyme technology and related IP.”

It has not been made public which of Verenium’s at least 28 U.S. patents, 23 pending U.S. patent applications and 28 international patent applications are part of the acquisition.  

A search for Verenium’s U.S. patents that contain the terms “cellulosic”, “ethanol” and “enzyme” may provide a hint in the eight hits it yields:  U.S. Patent Nos. 7,741,089, 7,592,434, 7,547,534, 7,504,120, 7,452,706, 7,432,098, 7,432,097 and 7,416,874.  Though some of these patents describe other industrial applications, several relate to phytases or xylanases, enzymes that are useful in ethanol production.

According to this BNET piece, this deal is good for Verenium because it allows the company to sell off the cellulosic ethanol unit that has been losing money and focus on its revenue-generating commercial enzyme business.

In recent years, the two companies have been collaborating on cellulosic ethanol development in two joint ventures called Galaxy Biofuels and Vercipia Biofuels.

Kruse Asserts Diesel Engine Patents Against More Big Automakers

August 9th, 2010

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Kruse Technology Partnership (“Kruse”) is an Anaheim, California partnership that owns several U.S. patents relating to its higher efficiency and cleaner burning diesel engines.

In previous posts (here, here and here) I discussed infringement suits in which Kruse accused DMAX, Ltd., Isuzu and General Motors of infringing U.S. Patent Nos. 5,265,562 (“’562 patent”), 6,058,904 (“’904 patent”) and 6,405,704 (“’704 patent”) relating to higher efficiency and lower emission diesel engines.

Last month Kruse filed a fourth patent action against several defendants, including Daimler, Mercedes-Benz USA, Volkswagen, Ford and Chrysler.  The complaint (kruse-daimler_complaint.pdf) alleges that the defendants are infringing the Kruse patents by making and selling engines and vehicles equipped with engines that practice the patented methods.

The asserted patents are entitled “Internal combustion engine with limited temperature cycle” and are directed to Kruse’s “Limited Temperature Cycle” technology, which limits peak combustion temperatures in direct injection gas and diesel engines. 

The Limited Temperature Cycle injects fuel in multiple increments both before and after ignition.  According to Kruse’s web site, such injection of partial quantities of fuel reduces the combustion temperature, boosts thermal efficiency and reduces certain chemical emissions.

The asserted patents claim this process and describe an engine incorporating the invention.  The engine (10) comprises 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).

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One key feature of the process is the maintenance of 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 permanent injunctions against the defendants and award Kruse compensatory damages for the alleged infringement.

GreenShift Adds Another Ethanol Patent Infringement Suit to the Mix

August 5th, 2010

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A previous post discussed GreenShift Corporation’s (GreenShift) volley of recent patent suits against a host of ethanol producers across the midwestern United States. 

In those lawsuits GreenShift accused various ethanol producers of infringing U.S. Patent No. 7,601,858 (’858 Patent), entitled “Method of processing ethanol byproducts and related subsystems.” 

Last month GreenShift added another infringement action to the mix when it sued an Illinois company called Adkins Energy, which runs an ethanol production facility.  The complaint (gs-adkins_complaint.pdf) was filed in the Northern District of Illinois and accuses Adkins of infringing the ’858 Patent.

The ’858 Patent is directed to methods of recovering oil from byproducts of ethanol production using the process of dry milling, which creates a waste stream comprised of byproducts called whole stillage.

According to the ’858 Patent, whole stillage contains valuable oil but prior processes for recovering this oil have been expensive or inefficient.

GS’s patented method includes mechanically separating the whole stillage into distillers wet grains and thin stillage and then running the thin stillage into an evaporator to form a concentrated byproduct, or syrup.  The syrup is fed through a second centrifuge, which separates usable corn oil from the syrup.

This latest complaint brings the total to at least ten patent infringement actions brought by GreenShift, all involving allegations of infringing the ’858 Patent. 

Defendants in the other cases include Cardinal Ethanol, Big River Resources Galva, Amaizing Energy Atlantic, Center Ethanol, Bushmills Ethanol, United Wisconsin Grain Producers, Blue Flint Ethanol and Iroquois Bio-Energy.