Archive for July, 2011

July 30th, 2011

 

 

Green Patent Blog is on vacation.

 

 

 

Guest Post: Philip Totaro’s Wind Tech and Patent Trend Update, and Introducing Wind Patent Watch

July 27th, 2011

 

Back in February we released the preliminary results of a patent landscape report, which identified both historical and future trends in the horizontal axis, utility-scale wind turbine industry. 

We now have a more comprehensive view of those trends as a result of the analysis on the landscape of pending applications.  With the completion of this work we have now analyzed over 1,900 US patents and over 1,500 published US pending applications.

There are now as many pending applications as issued patents, with 1,552 issued patents, 387 expired patents, and 1,561 pending applications.  This confirms the deep focus on IP as a competitive differentiator in addition to a focus on product strategy.  Top tier companies have vastly outstripped their competition in terms of the number of filings.

 

I.  Industry Relevance:  GE Leads

Once again an assessment of the relevance of the patent to the industry was performed and results were classified as low, medium, medium/high, and high.  Definitions of this classification method are below. 

The assessment of industry relevance serves the purpose of indicating the degree to which the patent owner has or is likely to assert their rights and seek licenses or otherwise enforce the patent.  This should be an indication of the proverbial landmines to watch out for when navigating a technology and product roadmap through the landscape.

  • Low – Not relevant to the currently pervasive set of technologies and products in the industry.
  • Medium – May have been relevant in the past, but as technology evolves it is less prevalent.  These are likely to shift to low in the future.
  • Medium/High – Important items which the industry needs to be cognizant of, but these can likely be avoided / mitigated.  Influence of things like technology trends and grid standards will ultimately determine relevance.
  • High – Critical item which has been asserted, licensed or enforced, or else it is highly likely to be in the future.

For pending applications there is obviously a certain amount of variability and attempted claim breadth which does not ultimately manifest in the issued patent, if it subsequently issues at all. 

Therefore, we are providing an assessment of industry relevance on the basis of the claim set published without investigation of the file history of each pending application to determine the likely scope of the subsequently issued claims at this point.

 

II.  Component  Trends:  Blade Aero Dominates, Controls & Sensors Surge, Blade Structure/Manufacturing and Offshore Installation Emerge

The majority of the filing trends have been maintained, but a few noteworthy trend differences from the issued and expired patent landscape previously discussed and the comprehensive portfolio including all pending applications are clear.

Controls & Sensors have taken over the #2 spot behind Blades as the most commonly patented component in the wind turbine and this category is making a run at becoming #1. 

Meanwhile, for the current #1 category, blade aero performance continues to be the dominant trend, but blade structure and manufacturing has quickly become an emerging trend with more recent applications. 

The majority of the other categories have stayed in their relatively same positions when comparing the overall portfolio to just the currently issued patents, but one new category which has emerged is offshore installation vessels.  This demonstrates that there is a concerted effort to make offshore more than just an important market segment, but a potential trend in technology development.

 

III.  Technology Trends:  Reliability Remains King

As for technologies, very few dramatic changes have occurred towards the top of the list, with Reliability still king in the wind industry. 

The interesting trends are the emergence of Construction & Assembly (particularly in the transportation area), Manufacturing, Cost / Weight Reduction, and Service & Repair as wind OEMs, component vendors, and balance of plant (BOP) contractors get into the mix with ways to be more cost effective and improve quality in those areas.

We at Totaro & Associates are currently working to expand this product offering to the Global patent landscape, so please stay tuned for more to come on this. 

While this work remains ongoing, we do not expect the trends to change dramatically.  This is due to the fact that the majority of results in the US patent landscape are part of patent families which are filed internationally.

As a result of this work we are now able to track patents and published applications in the US on a weekly basis. 

 

Introducing Wind Patent Watch

We are now pleased to launch Wind Patent Watch, a subscription service which delivers these landscape results as well as our assessment of the relevance to the industry and justification as well as the synopsis of the invention for each patent and application.  Please visit www.totaro-associates.com/windpatentwatch for more information.

Mr. Philip Totaro is the Principal at Totaro & Associates, a consulting firm focused on innovation strategy, competitive intelligence, product development and patent search.

Guest Post: Concentrated Solar Energy from a Crystal Ball (Lens)?

July 24th, 2011

 

REhnu (pronounced “renew”) is a company based in Tucson, Arizona that makes and sells concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) solar energy systems.

The company believes that the greatest energy for the least cost may consist in first greatly concentrating solar energy (1200x), and then converting it to electricity utilizing highly efficient triple-junction photovoltaic cells.

The company’s technology is described in at least three pending patent applications:  U.S. Patent Application Publication Nos. 2009/0277440 (‘440 Application), 2009/0277498 (‘498 Application), and 2009/0277224 (‘224 Application).  Rehnu CEO and University of Arizona astronomy professor Dr. Roger P. Angel is a named inventor on each of the applications.

A solar tracker “module” has eight large dish reflectors (1) and 36-cell receivers pointed at the sun by a stiff, lightweight frame. Each of REhnu’s reflectors (1) is made from a single, back-silvered glass sheet, 3.1m per side.

The glass is produced in the factory as flat sheets, 3.3 m square according to processes described in the ’224 Application, allowing for use of economical float glass.

Fig. 1. Full-size two-axis solar tracker module disclosed in the ‘440 Application, entitled “Solar concentrator apparatus with large, multiple co-axial dish reflectors”. The reflectors are manufactured via a process disclosed in the ‘224 Application, entitled “Method of manufacturing large dish reflectors for solar concentrator apparatus”.

Then, each sheet is heated and molded into a paraboloid. After cooling, a reflective film of silver is applied to the back surface, like in ordinary mirrors. With rolled edges for stiffening, the resulting finished product is 3.1m x 3.1m.

Next comes the concentration. Each of the eight dishes reflects light into its own ball lens (5), suspended at the focus.  Each ball lens (5) concentrates the light (3) 400x before passing it on, evenly, to a concave array of 36 optical funnels (45).

Each optical funnel further concentrates the light (3) to 1200x while funneling the solar energy to its own triple-junction photovoltaic cell (15).

Triple-junction cells, unlike single-junction cells, have three different junctions, each of which separately captures solar energy at distinct wavelengths. This results in more than a doubling of conversion efficiency over single-junction cells, such as silicon.

Triple-junction cells are more costly than silicon cells but cost less per unit power generated when used with highly concentrated light.

According to REhnu’s receivers & cooling web page, “when sold in the quantity needed to generate several megawatts, the cost is projected to soon reach $5/cm2, which at 1200x concentration and 30% module conversion efficiency, works out to $0.16/watt.”

This is roughly one-sixth of the cost per unit of power conversion compared to a single-junction photovoltaic cell used without concentration.    

The power produced by triple-junction cells is reduced by 1.35% for every 10°C rise in temperature, though, so cooling is very important. REhnu’s cells are cooled by liquid from a radiator and the radiator is cooled by fans.

Can concentrated solar energy from a ball lens coupled with increasingly efficient energy conversion from triple-junction photovoltaic cells produce cheap electricity from a small footprint on a commercial scale?

According to Rehnu’s web site, the University of Arizona has proven the technology in an 8-cell system, and larger systems continue to be tested to provide the answer to that question. 

Jonah Smith is President of the Notre Dame Intellectual Property Law Society and a J.D. candidate at Notre Dame Law School. Jonah is a contributor to the IP Lawyer Blog.

Green Patent Acquisitions: ABB Buys EV Charging Tech Company Epyon

July 20th, 2011

 

ABB, a large power and automation equipment conglomerate, recently announced that it has acquired Dutch EV charging company Epyon Power (Epyon).

Epyon, a a spin-off of Delft University of Technology, provides DC charging stations and supporting network software.

One of Epyon’s electric charging patent applications is International Publication No. WO 2009/108048 (’048 Application).  The ’048 Application is entitled “Electric charger for an accumulator or battery” and is directed to an electric charger for rapid charging.

The electric charger has a circuit placed on a printed circuit board (1) along with a semiconductor (2).  The semiconductor (2) is located on a first part of the circuit and is thermally coupled to a heat-absorbing member or heat sink (3) via a copper track (4) such that heat from the semiconductor is transferred to the heat sink.

 

The heat sink (3), in turn, is in heat-conducting contact with a second part of the circuit.

According to the ’048 Application, one key to the fast-charging capability of the invention is that different thermal coupling arrangements of the heat sink to other components allow slower relinquishing of the absorbed heat:

The heat-absorbing member is therefore preferably accommodated in the electric charger such that it can absorb the heat created during charging and can then relinquish it to the surroundings in delayed manner, for which purpose a comparatively good thermal coupling of the heat-absorbing member to the heat-producing part of the circuit is preferably desirable, in addition to a relatively poor thermal coupling of the heat-absorbing member to the other parts of the circuit and the housing of the electric charger.

A related feaure of the technology is that the electric charger rapidly charges during an “on-period” but cannot be restarted during the “off-period” that follows the on-period. 

According to the ’048 Application, both the off-period shutdown and the slow relinquishing of heat are “based on the insight that the development of heat occurs only during the limited on-period and that the electric charger is generally out of operation for an extended period after charging because the control means prevent a restart of the on-period.”

The ’048 Application states that, as a result of these features, the electric charger is capable of rapid charging without a significant increase in size or cost of the charger:

The invention has for its object to enable very rapid charging of an accumulator or battery, i.e. to make possible an effective charging period of several minutes without the charger having to take an appreciably larger and more expensive form than the known electric charger and without this resulting in appreciably higher costs for the charger.

In a recent guest post for Greentech Media, Mike Sherman of Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital called the acquisition of Epyon a “major milestone” in the EV charging industry and suggested it might be a tipping point because of the scale, distributions channels, and manufacturing capability of ABB.

Plastic Bag Makers Accuse ChicoBag of Reverse Greenwashing

July 18th, 2011

 

Greenwashing has come to mean making false or deceptive representations about environmentally friendly aspects of products, services or practices. 

The vast majority of greenwashing legal actions target product or service providers touting their wares in such a way that misleads consumers about the environmental benefits of those goods or services by, for example, making unsubstantiated claims about better energy efficiency or lower environmental impact.

However, in a twist that might be called reverse greenwashing, a new lawsuit focuses on alleged false or deceptive claims about the negative environmental impact of competitors’ products.

Specifically, plastic bag makers Hilex Poly Company, Superbag, and API Enterprises accuse ChicoBag, which markets its reusable bags as eco-friendly alternatives to single use plastic bags, of making false, misleading and unsubstantiated claims about the consumption, recycling, and environmental impact of plastic bags.

According to the second amended complaint (Hilex_Complaint), filed in federal court in Columbia, South Carolina, ChicoBag has made several false or deceptive claims in its advertising and promotion, and has falsely indicated that the claims are substantiated.  The disputed claims include:

the statement that only one percent of plastic bags are recycled;

the statement that “somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year”

the statements that “the world’s largest landfill can be found floating between Hawaii and San Francisco” and “this ‘landfill’ is estimated to be twice the size of Texas” and the “landfill” is comprised of “mostly plastic bags”;

the statements that “[e]ach year hundreds of thousands of sea birds and marine life die from ingestable [sic] plastics mistaken for food” and that such plastics are comprised mostly of plastic bags.

The plaintiffs also allege that some of ChicoBag’s assertions about its own reusable bags are false or misleading, such as the statement that its products are superior to plastic bags and that a reusable bag needs to be used only eleven times to have a lower environmental impact than using eleven disposable bags.

The complaint asserts one federal cause of action for false advertising under the Lanham Act and another for violations of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act.

It seems likely that some of the disputed statements will be deemed permissible advertising puffery. 

However, green consumers deserve accurate and substantiated information not only in connection with the environmental benefits of products they may want to purchase, but also the reverse – with respect to the environmental detriment of products they may wish to avoid.

Novozymes Asserts Glucoamylase Patents Against Enzyme Distributor

July 15th, 2011

Novozymes is a Danish biopharmaceutical company that develops enzymes for a variety of applications, including for use in production of biofuels.

Last month Novozymes sued an Illinois enzyme distributor called CTE Global (CTE) in federal court in Chicago, alleging infringement of U.S. Patent Nos. 6,255,084 (’084 Patent) and 7,060,468 (’468 Patent).

The ’084 and ’468 Patents are entitled “Thermostable glucoamylase” and are directed to an isolated glucoamylase enzyme which has higher thermal stability than prior glucoamylases.  The patents also claim starch conversion processes using the enzyme. 

Glucoamylases are used to convert hydrolyzed corn starch to glucose.

The patented enzyme was isolated, purified and characterized from a strain of Talaromyces emersonii, a thermophilic fungus.

According to the ’084 and ’468 Patents, the half-life of the isolated enzyme is between 100 and 140 minutes at 70 degrees Celsius, an improvement over prior art glucoamylases.

Novozymes’ complaint (Novozymes-CTE_Complaint) alleges that CTE’s glucoamylase products GLUCOAMYL L 706+ and GLUCOAMYL LG20, used for producing fuel ethanol, infringe the ’084 and ’468 Patents.

Novozymes is currently involved in another biofuels enzyme patent suit as well.  The company has asserted another enzyme patent against its Danish rival Danisco – U.S. Patent No. 7,713,723 – and survived a summary judgment motion challenging the validity of that patent.

In New Suit with A123 Hydro-Quebec Drills Black & Decker and Leans on Segway

July 12th, 2011

 

In a previous post, I wrote about patent litigation between Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec (H-Q) and Massachusetts based lithium ion battery maker A123 Systems (A123), in which A123 lost its bid to have its declaratory judgment action litigated in its desired forum of Boston.

Last month, H-Q opened a new front against A123 and also targeted Valence Technology (Valence) and Segway

Filed in federal court in Dallas, Texas, the complaint (HQ-A123-2d-Amended-Complaint) sticks with the same previously disputed family of patents, alleging infringement of three newly-issued patents in that family – U.S. Patents Nos. 7,955,733, 7,960,058 and 7,964,308, entitled “Cathode materials for secondary (rechargeable) lithium batteries” (Cathode Materials Patents).

H-Q asserts that A123 is infringing the Cathode Materials Patents by selling rechargeable lithium metal phosphate batteries for use in Black & Decker’s DeWalt cordless power tools, and Valence and Segway are infringing by selling Segway Personal Transporters that contain lithium metal phosphate batteries and cathode powder made by Valence.

The Cathode Materials Patents relate to host materials for use as electrodes in lithium ion batteries.  In particular, the patents are directed to a synthesized cathode material containing a compound with an olivine structure comprising the general formula LiMPO4 where M is iron, manganese, nickel or titanium.

According to the Cathode Materials Patents, these cathode materials provide a larger free volume for lithium ion motion that allows higher conductivity and therefore greater power densities.

H-Q is asking the court for a preliminary and permanent injunction and monetary damages.

Alta Solar Cells Up Efficiency by Slimming Down

July 9th, 2011

 

Alta Devices, a Santa Clara, California solar PV company, recently announced that its gallium arsenide solar cells have set a new efficiency record of 28.2%. 

The company’s press release quotes Alta co-founder Eli Yablonovitch, who says the trick to maximizing voltage is to generate more photons inside the solar cell.

According to Cleantech PatentEdge™, a couple of Alta’s patent families relate to a PV cell structure that increases voltage using a thin absorber layer to trap light.

U.S. Patent Application Publication Nos. 2010/0132780, entitled “Photovoltaice device” (’780 Application) and No. 2010/0126570, entitled “Thin absorber layer of a photovoltaic device” (’570 Application) are representative of these patent families. 

Both applications are directed to a PV unit (100) having several epitaxial layers including a buffer layer (102), a release layer (104), a window layer (106), a base layer (108), and an emitter layer (110).  The base layer (108) may comprise n-doped gallium arsenide semiconductor material, and the emitter layer (110) may comprise a p-doped aluminum gallium arsenide semiconductor material.

The combination of the base layer (108) and the emitter layer (110) may form an absorber layer for absorbing photons. 

According to the ’780 and ’570 Applications, this structure provides an absorber layer that is much thinner than those found in conventional solar cells (<500 nm versus up to several micrometers).

This is important because the thickness of the absorber layer is proportional to “dark current” levels in the cell, so a thinner absorber layer reduces dark current levels.  Dark current is the small electric current that flows through a PV cell even when no photons are entering the cell.

According to the ’780 and ’570 Applications, a lower dark current level means higher voltage and greater efficiency:

Because the open circuit voltage (Voc) increases as the dark current is decreased in a photosensitive semiconductor device, a thinner absorber layer may most likely lead to a greater (Voc) for a given light intensity and, thus, increased efficiency. As long as the absorber layer is able to trap light, the efficiency increases as the thickness of the absorber layer is decreased.

Alta’s web site says it is a development stage company.  The company certainly excels at development.

New PPH Pilot Opens Faster “Highway” to U.S. Patents for Israeli Clean Tech Companies

July 7th, 2011

 

In an important development on the intellectual property front, but with particular import for Israeli clean tech companies targeting the U.S. market for strategic partnerships and licensing, the Israel Patent Office (ILPO) and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recently announced a Patent Prosecution Highway (PPH) pilot project between the two offices.  

The PPH provides that an applicant receiving a ruling from the ILPO that at least one claim in an application is patentable may request that the USPTO expedite examination of corresponding claims in corresponding applications and vice versa (see USPTO PPH info here). 

This pilot project, like other PPH agreements already in place between the USPTO and patent offices in other countries, promises to accelerate and improve the patent prosecution process for patent applicants with interest in procuring both U.S. and Israeli patents on their inventions.

While the potential benefits of the program are not limited to clean tech innovations, this pilot project provides a particular potential boon to Israeli clean tech companies and their investors, especially if such companies also leverage the existing “green patent” programs in force in both the USPTO and the ILPO.  Israel remains a hotbed of clean tech innovation and development, while the US market continues to be one of the markets of choice for Israeli technology, along with China and India.

Combining the PPH pilot project with existing “green” patent programs in the ILPO and USPTO opens up exciting possibilities for clean tech innovators. 

Savvy Israeli clean tech companies, and the burgeoning Israel clean tech venture capital (“VC”) community that finances those companies, should work with patent counsel and determine whether their innovations qualify for inclusion in either the ILPO’s “green patent” program (allowing priority examination from the ILPO for applications classified as “green” via applicant request by letter, without the need for extra fees) or the USPTO’s Green Technology Pilot Program (offering successful petition filers expedited first Office Actions for “green” inventions). 

For strategically important inventions, inclusion in either program could allow for quicker patent issuance, thereby increasing the attractiveness of the technology to later-round investors, strategic partners, and potential licensing or enforcement targets. 

As an example, a hypothetical Israeli clean tech company could accelerate an existing pending patent application in the ILPO, by requesting classification in the “green patent” program, and then see that patent issue with reduced pendency.  The company could then take the newly-issued “green patent” and utilize the PPH pilot project to get expedited examination and potential issuance in the USPTO. 

This approach could shave years off the patent prosecution lifecycle for such a company, and thereby open up intellectual property monetization opportunities earlier in the investment lifecycle as well. 

The USPTO has not been shy about touting the benefits of PPH agreements, like the one it just entered into with the ILPO.   Among the benefits highlighted by the USPTO for these types of arrangements are: (1) cost savings to applicants, on the legal and administrative fee front at least, because of shorter pendency and fewer Office Actions, (2) quicker examination of PPH applications, usually within a few months of acceptance of the PPH request, and (3) a much higher allowance rate (>90%) for PPH applications over that of non-PPH cases (<50%). 

Israeli companies, of all stripes, including clean tech companies, targeting U.S. patents can now avail themselves of the aforementioned benefits, subject to the minimal requirements of the PPH pilot project. 

The pilot project started July 1, 2011 and is scheduled to run for one year.  If successful, there is a possibility that the term of the pilot project will be extended.  Alternatively, if the pilot project is underutilized or proves a burden on resources, it can be terminated early at the discretion of the respective patent offices. 

Clean tech companies interested in procuring U.S. and Israeli patents would do well to consider use of the PPH, and where possible an expedited “green” patent examination scheme, in order to obtain those patents in a shorter time at reduced cost.  Similar strategies have been discussed with respect to other patent offices that host both PPH agreements with the USPTO and “green” patent programs – it is now Israel’s turn to get in the game. 

Gaston Kroub is a partner in the New York office of Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell LLP.  Gaston serves as the co-chair of the Greentech Committee of the NYSBA’s IP Section and has been accredited as a LEED Green Associate.  Gaston is a registered patent attorney whose practice focuses on intellectual property litigation and counseling.

Freezer Greenwashing Suit Invokes Federal Appliance Law

July 5th, 2011

 

In a recently-filed suit, Plaintiff Christopher Collins seeks to add another weapon to the greenwashing legal arsenal. 

The proposed class action, filed in federal court in Oakland, California, invokes the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act (NAECA) in allegations that Haier America Trading (Haier) made false representations about the energy efficiency of certain freezers.

The NAECA is a federal law that created mandatory standards for energy efficiency of certain household appliances to ensure that products continue to operate at the maximum technically and economically feasible energy efficiency levels. 

The statute prohibits manufacturers from making any representations about an appliance’s efficiency unless the product has been tested by the federal procedures and the manufacturer discloses the test results.

The NAECA applies to a variety of household appliances including refrigerators, freezers, room air conditioners, dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers, and kitchen ranges and ovens.

According to the complaint (Collins-Complaint), Haier and GE (which sells certain Haier freezers under its own brand name) affixed ENERGYGUIDE labels (shown above) to certain Haier freezers that substantially understated their actual energy consumption and showed levels that complied with the NAECA.  

Independent testing conducted by Consumer Reports, the complaint says, demonstrated that the labels were false, and the mislabeled freezers consume substantially more energy than what was represented on the labels.

In particular, the actual energy consumption of the freezers exceeds the maximum permitted under NAECA by between 163 and 202 kWh/yr: 

Collins alleges that, had the true energy efficiency data been disclosed, he would not have purchased a GE Model FCM7SU freezer and neither Haier nor GE would have been permitted to sell the freezer.

Collins works the NAECA argument into Count 5 of the complaint, which alleges violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL).  Specifically, Count 5 asserts that by selling the mislabeled freezers in violation of the NAECA energy efficiency standards Defendants have engaged in “unlawful” business practices under the UCL.

In addition to the NAECA ground, the complaint sets forth state and common law bases typical of greenwashing complaints such as false advertising, consumer protection violations, and unjust enrichment.  Common law fraudulent concealment and nondisclosure are also raised in connection with the alleged false energy efficiency data.

Interestingly, this post from the Class Action Blog presages Collins’ complaint, though the Meiselman Denlea firm that authors the blog is not the firm handling this case.