Archive for January, 2012

NREL’s Optical Furnace is Heating Up Solar

January 31st, 2012

The photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing process typically requires solar cells to be heated to extremely high temperatures.  Traditional methods for heating involve utilizing conventional electric or infrared furnaces to heat the cells for long periods of time.

The heating process allows for the fabrication of the cells but is very expensive and results in impurities and imperfections in the PV cells.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the only federal laboratory exclusively dedicated to the research, commercialization and development of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, has developed an optical furnace that may change the solar industry.

The optical furnace is able to heat PV cells more effectively at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods, which may result in a higher quality product at a lower cost.

The optical furnace is described in U.S. Patent Number 5,577,157, entitled “Optical Processing Furnace with Quartz Muffle and Diffuser Plate ” (’157 Patent) and U.S. Patent Application Number 2011/0003485, entitled “Optical Cavity Furnace for Semiconductor Wafer Processing” (’485 Application).

Figure 1 of the ’485 Application depicts an embodiment of the optical furnace.  The furnace includes a bank of optical energy sources 12 a-n and reflectors 14 surrounding a transport system 22 enclosed in a cavity 18.

According to both the ’157 Patent and the ’485 Application, it is advantageous if the optical reflectors are made of a diffuse rather than a specular material.  A diffuse reflector is advantageous becuase it ensures the optical energy is reflected evenly within the furnace cavity with a minimum of energy loss.

Figure 2 of the ’157 Patent shows another view of the optical furnace.  The figure shows a bank of optical energy sources 21 above the furnace cavity 7.  The cavity consists of a diffuse reflector box 15, 16, 17, 18 made of quartz, called the quartz box or muffle. 

The figure also depicts a diffuser plate 9.  The diffuser plate is also made of quartz and is placed on top of the quartz muffle in order to protect the muffle from the high energy released by the optical energy sources. 

If the quartz muffle were to be damaged, replacement costs would be very high and the process would be time consuming.  The diffuser plate is designed to be quickly and inexpensively replaced when damage occurs.

According to NREL, their optical furnace can potentially increase PV efficiency by four percentage points (from 16 to 20 percent).  This would represent a major increase in efficiency.

Further, NREL is working in conjunction with AOS, Inc. to produce a manufacturing sized furnace. NREL anticipates this manufacturing furnace will be able to produce 1,200 highly efficient solar cells per hour.  The increase in efficiency and manufacturer-scale production will all occur at a quarter of traditional PV manufacturing costs.

These improvements and reduced costs will hopefully mean better and less expensive PV cells on the market in the near future.

David Gibbs is a contributor to Green Patent Blog.  David is currently in his third and final year at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.  He received his undergraduate degree in Geology from the University of California, Berkeley.

Clean Tech in Court: Green Patent Complaint Update

January 29th, 2012

There have been a few green patent complaints filed in the last several weeks in the areas of LEDs, solar power, and biofuels.

 

LEDs

Fiber Optic Designs, Inc. v. Seasons 4, Inc.

Filed December 16, 2011 in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Fiber Optic Designs’ (FOD) complaint (FiberOptic_Complaint) alleges that Seasons 4 is infringing two patents directed to light strings containing light emitting diodes. 

The two asserted patents are of the same family, U.S. Patents Nos. 7,220,022 and 7,934,852, both entitled “Jacketed LED assemblies and light strings containing same.”

 

Solar

Zep Solar Inc. v. Westinghouse Solar Inc.

In the latest missive in this growing legal battle, Zep has asserted U.S. Patent No. 7,592,537 (’537 Patent) against Westinghouse (formerly Akeena Solar).  The ’537 Patent is entitled “Method and apparatus for mounting photovoltaic modules” and is directed to an interlocking PV module array.

Although the complaint is not publicly available, we have this Filing Report (Zep-Westinghouse_Report) and Westinghouse’s Answer (Westinghouse_Answer) in the case, filed December 20, 2011 in the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division.

The accused device is Westinghouse’s Andalay Groove Interlock product, and other named defendants are Andalay Solar, Lightway Green New Energy, Brightway Global, Morrison Supply Company, Sky Solar Solutions, and Alternative Power & Electric. 

This lawsuit follows other actions between these two competing solar installers (see more details in a previous post here), which now have cross claims of patent infringement in multiple forums.

 

Biofuels

Gevo, Inc. v. Butamax Advanced Biofuels LLC

Another growing patent dispute is the one between Butamax, a BP-DuPont joint venture, and Colorado advanced biofuels startup Gevo (read prior posts about the dispute here and here), which now includes cross claims of patent infringement in multiple forums.

In the latest complaint (Gevo-Butamax_Complaint), filed in the District of Delaware on January 24, 2012, Gevo accuses Butamax of infringing U.S. Patent No. 8,101,808 (’808 Patent) by performing certain isobutanol production processes.

The ’808 Patent, granted on January 24, 2012, is entitled “Recovery of higher alcohols from dilute aqueous solutions” and directed to methods of recovering C3-C6 alcohols from a fermentation broth.

Interestingly, I believe the Gevo-Butamax litigation is the first instance of biofuels patent litigation involving one of the oil majors.

Guest Post: Gaston Kroub on Why Clean Tech Investors Should Get Ready for eDiscovery

January 26th, 2012

How the long arm of the law could reach clean tech investors when their portfolio companies become embroiled in green patent litigation

This blog’s readers are well aware of the critical role private-sector funding, whether through venture capital, investment banks, or other funding mechanisms, plays in furthering Cleantech innovation.  And followers of this blog are increasingly being regaled with dispatches from the burgeoning world of Cleantech patent litigation. 

While the natural temptation of those on the “money” side is to leave the “legal” side to the lawyers, a recent decision in a decidedly non-Cleantech patent litigation serves to put the folks on the “money” side on notice that their Cleantech investment activities may be subject to potentially costly and disruptive ediscovery in current and future patent litigations.

 

A Model Order for Discovery Cost Management in Patent Litigation

By way of background, a few months ago a new Model Order (available here) for conducting ediscovery in patent litigations was announced to great fanfare by Chief Judge Rader of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  The Model Order seeks to “promote economic and judicial efficiency by streamlining ediscovery, particularly email production…”  

Importantly, the Model Order is directed to the parties in the litigation, which in a typical patent case would include the patentee or patent owner and the alleged infringer or infringers. 

 

A Recent Decision Extends the Model Order’s Ambit to Non-Party Discovery

In a recent Order (Google_Order) Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California’s San Jose Division granted-in-part a Motion to Compel Production of Documents from a non-party in the pending In Re Google patent litigation. 

In that case, the patentee, a company called Software Rights Archive LLC (SRA), filed a patent infringement lawsuit in 2007 accusing technology companies, including AOL, Google, and Yahoo, of patent infringement. 

As part of the festivities in the case, SRA subpoenaed venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins (KPCB) for 34 categories of documents related to KPCB’s investments in AOL and Google, as well as KPCB’s analysis of the technology and valuation of its portfolio companies now named as patent infringement defendants.

KPCB objected to the subpoena, and after SRA filed a motion to compel, KPCB undertook a limited search of its email archives for documents it felt were sought by the subpoena. 

In deciding the motion, the Court was not persuaded that KPCB should be forced to look for and turn over responsive documents in all of the requested categories, but did find merit in SRA’s general claim that KPCB’s limited initial search was inadequate. 

Importantly, the Court looked to “pertinent portions” of the Model Order discussed above, and decided that the “objective of appropriately scaling the burden of electronic document production to its legitimate benefit” extended to non-party discovery – even as the Model Order is “directed to discovery from parties.” 

Having looked to the Model Order for guidance, and upon deciding that it was applicable to non-party discovery, the Court then ordered KPCB to undertake an immediate search of its “email and electronic document files of the five persons most involved in the (sic) KPCB’s investments in Google and AOL”, using targeted search terms to be supplied by SRA. 

And KPCB was to absorb the cost of that search, unless SRA’s search terms were found to be “beyond the limits”, in which case SRA would need to bear the fees and costs of that additional discovery.

 

The Implications for Cleantech

It is uncommon for investors in alleged infringers to be named as a party in a patent case (although one clean tech exception was discussed in a previous post). 

However, as the Order from In re Google demonstrates, what is becoming increasingly common, particularly in industries such as software/ecommerce and biotech that are heavily-driven by private-sector funding, is for those investors to become the target of subpoenas seeking information regarding their relationship with their portfolio company that is ensnared in a litigation, as an alleged infringer or even as a patentee.  

And the Cleantech investment community is sure to join those other industries as a subpoena target as patent litigation involving investor-backed Cleantech companies increases.

In light of the recent Order in the In Re Google patent litigation, the Cleantech investment community should prepare for a limited ability to completely quash discovery subpoenas in current or future patent litigation involving their respective portfolio companies as litigants. 

Investors should be proactive in confronting an inevitable future of increased Cleantech patent litigation, which is sure to be accompanied by increased attempts at procuring discovery via subpoena from non-parties like Cleantech investors. 

Cleantech investors and their in-house counsel should take steps now to review their document retention and retrieval policies, and evaluate their subpoena response strategies in light of the Model Order governing ediscovery in patent cases, and its recent extension to non-party discovery by at least one Court in an ongoing patent dispute.

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.

Painting the Town Green

January 23rd, 2012

A team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame, led by Prashant V. Kamat, has developed a semi-conductive paint that turns surfaces on which it is applied into solar cells.

The solar paint is described in U.S. Patent Application Publication No. 2009/0114273 (’273 Application), entitled “Nanomaterial Scaffolds for Electron Transport”.

Single wall carbon nanotubes (SWCNT) create the scaffold architecture, which allows electrons to move more efficiently than prior art vis-a-vis nanoparticles or quantum dots.

The nanoparticles are coated in titanium dioxide and either cadmium sulfide or cadmium senenide.  The particles are then suspended in a water and alcohol mixure to form a paste.

Figure 1 depicts the improvement made in the ’273 Application (Figure 1B) over the prior art (Figure 1A).  Figures 10A and 10B depict random electron transport versus direct electron transport utilizing the nanotubes described in the ’273 Application.

According to the ’273 Application, because of the SWCNT’s special properties, it can boost the solar paint’s photoconversion efficiency:

The unique electrical and electronic properties, wide electrochemical stability window, and high surface area render SWCNT beneficial as a scaffold to anchor light harvesting assemblies.  In accordance with an embodiment, the electron accepting ability of semiconducting SWCNT thus offers an opportunity to facilitate electron transport and thus increase the photoconversion efficiency of nanostructure semiconductor based solar cells.

See Kamat’s article about the paint, dubbed “Sun-Believable,” here.

The possibilities surrounding an inexpensive and efficient solar paint are clear, as it could be applied on everyday surfaces like fences and homes to generate electricity. This product could be a huge breakthrough for renewable energy production.

See a short video about how solar paint works here.

Green Branding Enters Its Blue Period

January 20th, 2012

Just as new patent filings can indicate the direction technology is moving, trademark application data can reveal trends in branding.

This is the idea behind the Dechert law firm’s Annual Report on Trends in Trademarks (created and produced by Glenn Gunderson) in which the firm draws from the most recent year’s trademark data to highlight some new branding and marketing trends.

In 2008 the Dechert report (trends_in_trademarks_2008) focused on the explosion in green branding, demonstrated by the spike in applied-for trademarks and service marks containing eco-friendly terms such as “green,” “eco-,” and “enviro.”

Four years on, some of those terms, most notably “green,” have become ubiquitous in branding and marketing environmentally friendly products, services, and business practices. 

As a result, the term “green” has become descriptive of environmentally friendly attributes and lost the inherent distinctiveness required to obtain a U.S. trademark registration. 

This is because a mark that is “merely descriptive” of the goods or services it is being used to market or sell is not registrable without an additional showing that consumers have come to associate the mark with the source of the goods or services.

I have discussed several instances of this erosion of “green” in trademark applications in previous posts, e.g., here.

Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that another color has emerged from the green marketers’ toolbox to signal environmentally friendly attributes.

In a previous post (Is Blue the New Green?: Bollore Wins Allowance of BLUECAR Eco-Mark), I discussed Bollore Group’s successful bid to register the mark BLUECAR for, inter alia, electric vehicles and electric motors.

The BLUECAR trademark application was rejected by the trademark examiner on the basis that the mark is merely descriptive because the goods could encompass blue colored vehicles.

On appeal to the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, Bollore successfully overcame the rejection by arguing that its use of the mark in connection with environmentally friendly vehicles creates a double entendre because the word “BLUE” evokes an image of cleaner, bluer skies.

I ended that post by asking whether green might be losing its monopoly as the color of environmentally friendly products and services and stating that “perhaps blue is the new green.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, I read a piece that appeared in the Economist’s The World in 2012 issue entitled The Greening of Blue.  The article noted several examples of “blue becoming the new green.”

Those include Volkswagen’s “BlueMotion” badge for efficient cars, Mercedes-Benz’s “Blueefficiency” emblem, New Holland’s “ecoBlue” low-emissions tractors, Samsung’s “Blue Earth” solar-powered phone, and, of course, Bollore’s Bluecar.

The article quotes Jack Bredenfoerder, a color expert at the brand consultancy Color Strategy, who said “green is so obvious” and blue is more serious, a global color associated with the sea and cooperation (think the UN).

So now seems to be the moment for blue in green (Miles reference intended).  Green marketers:  you’d better register your blue marks before the new color goes the way of green and becomes merely descriptive and unregistrable.

But stay tuned and stay on your toes because it won’t end here.  A veritable rainbow of green branding colors awaits; according to Bredenfoerder a new clean and efficient color will soon start to compete with blue, which raises the question: will white be the new blue?

Guest Post: Wind Developers and Utilities Beware – Curtailment Could Cost You

January 18th, 2012

 

What developers and financiers of wind farm projects need to know.

I attended the AWEA Fall Symposium in Carlsbad in November 2011.  While it was a good industry gathering, I was intrigued by a panel discussion in which a representative from a major US developer and O&M (operations & maintenance) service provider to wind farms indicated that his organization will sometimes sidestep the turbine OEM (original equipment manufacturer) when it comes to sourcing spare parts.

Generally speaking, the turbine supply agreements which wind turbine OEMs sign with their own customers cover the breadth of their patent protection, but typically only a use license is provided.  The ability to modify turbines or use substitutes may not be implicitly provided to the owner/operator of the turbine, calling into question some of the proposed methods developers and O&M service providers may use to help control cost.

Aspects of this topic were previously covered in in this space in a post entitled Infringement Issues in an Emerging Wind Power Cottage Industry.  

Interestingly, in other industries, like automotive, we have seen the OEMs create features of certain key components which mean the components or the service can only be provided by an OEM representative or certified technician.  This locks in an aftermarket revenue stream for the OEM, and is something they will not want to lose out on as more ‘modern’ turbine fleets begin to come off warranty and age.

As the O&M cost structure and optimization of wind farm operations becomes more of a hot button issue, we will see what steps if any OEMs will take to ensure revenue streams in this increasingly competitive market.  Assertion of patent rights is certainly a tool in the toolbox.

Nevertheless, this topic got me to thinking about other areas in which there may be vulnerability of developers, and thus the financiers of wind farm projects, to assertion of patent rights from turbine OEMs.

As we have seen in other industries, as competition emerges and the industry matures, IP owners begin to assert their rights if they feel there is diminishment of their commercial enterprise. 

We have seen GE assert its patent rights against many other turbine OEMs on variable speed technology, and even go to court with Mitsubishi in a suit which could have profound implications on future assertion within the industry.  AMSC also recently made public the theft of trade secrets by one of its customers.

This begs an important question: Will the turbine OEMs, who have accumulated over 4300 US patents and applications on all aspects of wind turbine technology, begin to seek targets other than their OEM competition for licensing revenue in a US market which is increasingly cost competitive?

For instance, there are many OEMs and key component suppliers with patents on methods of power factor control and curtailment for wind farms.  These two particular aspects of wind farm operation and optimization are  not only noteworthy for freedom to operate by the competitor OEMs, but operators of wind farms may need to start paying attention too. 

U.S. Patent No. 6,479,907 owned by ABB, U.S. Patent No. 6,891,281 owned by Enercon, and U.S. Patent No. 7,663,260 owned by Nordex are good examples of hardware and control methodologies already being employed. 

What recourse does a wind farm operator or turbine OEM have to refuse a curtailment order from an ISO if they know that it would infringe on a third party or competitor’s patent?

Also, U.S. Patent No. 7,318,154 owned by GE, which enables remote monitoring and control of wind farms via the SCADA system, could potentially be important to anyone operating a wind farm.  FIG. 1 of this patent is shown here:

Nowadays, even connection of energy storage technology or use of high voltage direct current HVDC is becoming more pervasively talked about and deployed in wind, with plenty of pioneering patents and applications on both aspects of technology already in process.

The question is whether or not an OEM would jeopardize a customer or potential customer relationship and turbine sales to assert its patent rights on developers, O&M providers or owners/operators of wind farms for which they did not supply turbines (and the aforementioned use licenses).

Is there a need to add IP due diligence to wind farm development efforts?  Perhaps, but there is a long way to go from patents which “may be highly relevant” to getting lawyered up in an effort to fend off opposition.  That being said, being proactive could reduce the odds of excessive damage awards.

As FERC continues to evolve their regulations regarding operation of wind farms, we will see if the OEMs can remain one step ahead with patent protection on technologies which could become the new standard for optimized performance of a wind farm or cost mitigation of O&M.

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

To get a deeper look into the patent landscape of the horizontal axis, utility-scale wind industry please visit www.totaro-associates.com and ask about Wind Patent Watch™, a subscription service providing a weekly digest and analysis of the published patents and applications from the wind industry.

Flipping Over Offshore Wind Turbines

January 16th, 2012


WindFlip AS is a Norwegian company that has developed WindFlip, a novel approach to transporting pre-assembled wind turbines to offshore locations.

The approach is described in International Application Publication No. WO 2011/051804, entitled “Partially Submersible Wind Turbine Transport Vessel” (’804 Application).

WindFlip is a specialized barge for transporting assembled offshore wind turbines. The assembled wind turbine (24) is transported on a turbine transport vessel (10) in a nearly horizontal position, as shown below in Figure 1 of the ’804 Application.

Once the vessel (10) reaches its destination, it tilts to a vertical position using seawater.  More particularly, twenty-nine air-filled displacement tanks are located in the hull (22) of the vessel (10). 

The displacement tanks are sequentially filled with seawater, sinking the stern (16) of the vessel (10) and the base of the turbine (24), until both are at a vertical position, as shown in Figure 4.

Once the turbine (24) and vessel (10) are oriented approximately 90 degrees to the sea surface, the turbine (24) is released and maneuvered to pre-installed anchors.  After releasing the turbine (24), the vessel returns to a horizontal position by forcing the seawater out of the displacement tanks with compressed air.

See an animation of the process here.

Traditional offshore wind turbine transportation requires deep ocean depths due to the turbines’ draft. WindFlip allows pre-assembled wind turbines to be transported to offshore locations despite shallow or variable ocean depths.

TransData Transferred and Consolidated; Philips and Seoul Settle

January 13th, 2012

A couple of significant green patent lawsuits saw major developments last month.

First, in what might have become an epic battle, Philips Electronics and Seoul Semiconductor ended a two-way infringement suit involving six LED and semiconductor patents (Philips-Seoul_Dismissal) after settling their claims, including entering a cross-license agreement

The accused products included Seoul’s Acriche, Top View, High Flux, Side View and Z-Power LEDs.

A previous post discussed this suit, which was filed by Philips in March of last year.  Philips asserted infringement of five LED patents and requested a declaratory judgment of non-infringement and invalidity of Seoul’s U.S. Patent No. 5,075,742 (’742 Patent). 

The ’742 Patent is entitled “Semiconductor structure for optoelectronic components with inclusions” and is directed to a structure having plural layers in semiconductor material.  One of the layers includes stacked sub-layers, with each sub-layer having three dimensional “inclusions” – improved electron-hole areas – and a narrow band gap. 

Philips had alleged that it had a reasonable apprehension of being sued for infringement of the ’742 Patent because of press releases and public statements by Seoul calling the patent “fundamental to indium gallium nitride-based light emitting device technology,” and characterizing a recent court decision as holding that it would be “impossible for LEDs that use InGaN in their active layers” to avoid infringement of the ’742 Patent.

Second, at least seven patent suits filed by Texas smart meter company TransData filed in courts across a wide swath of the southern U.S. have been consolidated in the Western District of Oklahoma (see previous posts about these cases here, here, here and here).  TransData had moved to centralize the litigation, but argued for transfer to the Eastern District of Texas. 

In a recent Transfer Order (TransData_Transfer), the Panel on Multi-District Litigation (MDL) agreed that centralization was warranted but held the Western District of Oklahoma was the most appropriate location for the convenience of the parties and judicial efficiency. 

This is because of its convenient, central location, its relatively light docket, and the lack of opposition by the parties to the district:

We are persuaded that the Western District of Oklahoma is the most appropriate transferee district.  It is near Texas, where many of the parties are located; is in a geographically central location for this nationwide litigation; and an action is already pending in that district.  Most responding defendants support or do not oppose centralization in the Western District of Oklahoma, and the relative docket conditions in this district are more favorable than other proposed transferee forums.

The asserted patents are U.S. Patents Nos. 6,181,294 (’294 Patent), 6,462,713 (’713 Patent) and 6,903,699 (’699 Patent), which relate to antennas and wireless communication devices for use with electric meters.