Archive for April, 2012

Clean Energy Patent Growth Index Shows Record High for 2011

April 30th, 2012

The Heslin Rothenberg firm’s Clean Energy Patent Growth Index (CEPGI) 2011 Year in Review was published earlier this month. 

The 2011 roundup found that granted green patents were at an all time high of 2331 for last year, a rise of 450 patents, or 24%, over 2010.

Always an interesting read, the CEPGI is quarterly publication that tracks grants of U.S. patents directed to clean energy technologies.

The 2011 CEPGI technology breakdown showed wind patents with the biggest gain, up over 85%, growing from 245 patents in 2010 to 455 last year.  Solar patents rose almost 50%, hybrid/electric vehicle patents were up 20%, tidal energy patents rose 50%, and biomass/biofuel patents jumped by 65%.

While fuel cell patents were down 44 patents over 2011, this sector was still the winner in total patent grants with 952.  Solar took second place with 541 patents, and wind was third with 455 patents.

There were 203 hybrid/electric vehicle patents granted in 2011, with 104 biomass patents, and 60 tidal energy patents.

The number one green patent holder for 2011 was GE, with 184 patents.  Samsung, with 128 patents, took second place, with GM in third place with 127.  Toyota and Honda took fourth and fifth place, respectively, with 114 and 79 patents each. 

The rest of the top ten green patent holders consisted of Vestas, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Panasonic, and Siemens.

The CEPGI also includes more detailed data broken down by subsector and geography.  More info on the CEPGI can be found here.

Green Technology IP Summit to be Held in Chicago

April 28th, 2012


Please note that the Green Technology IP Summit has been canceled.



Brazil is the First BRIC to Fall From the Anti-Green Patent Wall

April 26th, 2012

 Last week we reported the launch of the Brazilian National Institute of Industrial Property’s (INPI) pilot program to accelerate green patent applications.

But there’s a lot more to this story than meets the eye.  Though INPI joins several other national intellectual property offices around the world in offering a green patent fast track, this is not simply another instance of such a program.

This is because, with respect to green patents, Brazil is not like any of the other countries that offer accelerated examination programs.

With the launch of this pilot program, Brazil becomes the first of any emerging market or developing country to signal anything remotely resembling a positive view of patents directed to green technologies and their role in combating climate change. 

Along with China and India, Brazil has been at the forefront of the G77 nations pushing to weaken or eliminate intellectual property rights in green technologies in the UN climate change treaty discussions over the last several years (see, e.g., my previous post here).

These countries have been arguing that IP rights act as a barrier to transfer and deployment of green technologies and have proposed a host of policy prescriptions to remove that perceived barrier. 

Those include compulsory licensing for such technologies, guaranteed access to green technologies on royalty-free terms, excluding green technologies from patent protection, and revoking existing patents on green technologies.

Consider these sentiments expressed by Haroldo de Oliviera Machado Filho, a senior climate change advisor to the Brazilian government, in 2009 in the run-up to the UN Copenhagen meeting (see articles here and here):

Leaders should consider the possibility of allowing “compulsory licensing” for green technologies.

Intellectual property systems are seen as “a significant barrier” in transferring technology from rich to poor nations.

“With [global warming mitigation] technologies there should be an understanding that patents must not be an obstacle for developing countries.”

But the launch of INPI’s green patent fast track last week obviously sends a different message and apparently signals a reversal in Brazil’s policy toward green patents. 

Consider this from Douglas Santos Alves, a researcher at INPI who participated in developing the pilot program:

“We will accelerate because we want clean technology to get to society soon…We cannot wait six years for an environmental solution to be applied in the market.”

Clearly, Brazil has reached an inflection point in its attitude toward green patents. 

So what happened in the last three years to cause this 180 degree turn? 

I don’t have a definitive answer, but there are some clues.

Brazil is a global leader in at least one green technology area:  biofuels.  The country has been making ethanol from sugar cane for years and has developed a sustainable market around it.

Thus, Brazil has some important domestic biofuels champions such as Cosan, a major ethanol producer.

This success has also attracted the attention and business of many American companies, from oil giants such as Shell to biofuels startups like Amyris and Solazyme.

All of these players need patent protection in Brazil and may have been turned off by the unduly long (5+ years) average application processing time in INPI.

This reversal by Brazil may represent a significant moment in green patent history.

I suspect it’s just a matter of time before other BRICs and developing countries that have been united against green patents break from the past and join Brazil in respecting and promoting them. 

China, in particular, with its strong solar industry, seems a likely candidate for the next BRIC to fall.

Wind Case Wends Through Chinese Courts, Perhaps to China Supremes

April 23rd, 2012


In previous posts (here and here), I discussed the IP litigation in China between American Superconductor (AMSC) and Chinese wind energy system maker Sinovel.

The of heart of the dispute is AMSC’s allegations that Sinovel misappropriated its propietary software code for controlling wind turbines and power converters.  

Specifcally, AMSC accuses Sinovel of copyright infringement and theft of trade secrets by Sinovel’s unauthorized use of the turbine control software source code and the binary code, or upper layer, of its software for the PM3000 power converters used with Sinovel’s 1.5 MW turbines.  The control software was developed by AMSC for use with Sinovel’s turbines.

The litigation has involved four separate actions by AMSC in various forums in China.

At least one of those lawsuits has begun its ascent through the Chinese appellate courts. 

Earlier this month, the Hainan Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision dismissing AMSC’s copyright infringement action.  The Hainan Province No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court had thrown out AMSC’s suit on jurisdictional grounds after Sinovel filed a motion to dismiss in December.  

In the motion, Sinovel argued that the case should be governed by the Beijing Arbitration Commission, which is hearing separate contractual disputes between AMSC and Sinovel.

According to this Recharge piece, the Hainan case was brought against Dalian Guotong, a power converter maker partially owned by Sinovel, and Huaneng Hainan Power Company.

This action is AMSC’s smallest case by dollar amount, in which the company had requested about $200,000 in damages as well as a cease and desist order.

Nevertheless, AMSC has filed an appeal with China’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court.  Recharge reports that AMSC did not receive any immediate indication as to when, or even if, the China Supremes will grant the appeal and hear the case.

We will continue to follow these cases as the effectiveness of intellectual property enforcement in China remains an open question of increasing importance to the clean tech industry.

Green Off-Patent Report (Powered by Cleantech PatentEdge)

April 20th, 2012

Our Green Off-Patent Report provides selected highlights of green patents which completed their 20-year term and expired within the last week or so (assuming the patentee paid all requisite maintenance fees; U.S. patents require payment of fees 3 1/2, 7 1/2, and 11 1/2 years after issuance to stay in force).

Many of the green technologies in use today are off-patent, i.e., the patents covering the technologies have run their 20-year term and expired.

Knowing which technologies are off-patent is important because those technologies are in the public domain and can be exploited by anyone.  It’s also interesting because it provides a window into what was cutting edge technology twenty years ago.

The green off-patent searching is performed by Cleantech PatentEdge™.

U.S. Patent No. 5,354,477 (Water Purification) entitled “Low Molecular Weight Amines and Amine Quaternaries for the Removal of Soluble Organics in Oil Field Produced Water.”  The patent describes a method for removing hydrocarbons from water by injecting low molecular weight amines and preferably amine quaternaries with strong acids into an oil and water mixture to remove oil based salts.  Filed April 7, 1992; issued October 11, 1994; expired April 7, 2012.

U.S. Patent No. 5,324,433 (Soil/Water Restoration) entitled “In-situ Restoration of Contaminated Soils and Groundwater.”  The patent describes a method for removing and stabilizing in-situ soluble heavy metal contaminants from soil and groundwater by injecting an aqueous solution of naturally occurring ions.  The solution solubilizes the heavy metals into solution where they can be removed.  Filed April 16, 1992; issued June 28, 1994; expired April 16, 2012.

U.S. Patent No. 5,261,970 (Photovoltaic Cells) entitled “Optoelectronic and Photovoltaic Devices with Low-Reflective Surfaces.”  The patent describes photovoltaic devices with low angle ‘V’ shaped grooves on the target surfaces.  The grooves increase the efficiency of the devices by promoting internal reflection of light from the target surface at the interface of the coverglass.”  Filed April 8, 1992; issued November 16, 1993; expired April 8, 2012.

U.S. Patent No. 5,260,588 (LEDs) entitled “Light Emitting Diode.”  The patent describes a light emitting diode formed as reverse mesas with mirrored sloping surfaces which reflect light in the direction of the light emitting diode surface, improving the efficiency of each diode.  Filed April 14, 1992; issued November 9, 1993; expired April 14, 2012.

U.S. Patent No. 5,317,979 (Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction) entitled “Method and Apparatus for the Complete, Dry Desulphurization of Combustion Waste Gases Comprising SO2 and Dust.”  The patent describes a method for removing SO2 from the combustion waste gases of coal dust.  The process includes heating the gas quickly to a temperature below the sintering temperature of the fly ash, then cooling the gas to a temperature where the distance between the temperature and the dew point is low and is below 25 degrees C.  This binds the SO2 gas to the ash, cleaning it from the combustion waste gas.  Filed April 16, 1992; issueed June 7, 1994; expired April 16, 2012.

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.

Guest Post: Brazil Opens Green Patent Fast Track

April 17th, 2012

Today the National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI) of Brazil launched a pilot program to accelerate green patent applications (see the Folha news piece here).

The goal of the program is to reduce the period of examination of patent applications related to green technologies to less than two years.  Average prosecution time is five years and four months.

The pilot program will be limited to domestic filings (resident or non-residents) and limited to the first 500 petitions granted.

Eligible green technologies (with final determination for entry into the program being governed by a technical committee of INPI) fall under the following categories: alternative energy, transportation, energy conservation, waste management and agriculture.

The requirements to participate in the pilot program are:

The application is a utility patent application;

The application is a national application (resident or non-resident);

The application was filed with INPI on or after January 2, 2011; and

The application contains a maximum of 15 claims in total, with up to three independent claims.

Requests to enter the pilot program also require submission of a form specific to the pilot program and a request for examination (if not already requested) and early publication.

More information (in Portuguese) can be found on the INPI web site here.

Brazil’s INPI joins several other national intellectual property offices that offer expedited examination for green technologies, including the UK Intellectual Property Office, the Korean Intellectual Property Office, the Japanese Patent Office, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, the Israel Patent Office, and IP Australia.

*Marcelo König Sarkis, P. Eng., FIPIC, is a Senior Patent Agent and Professional Engineer with Heenan Blaikie LLP.  He is a member of Heenan Blaikie’s Intellectual Property as well as Climate, Cleantech and Sustainability Groups.

Shooting Ions at Wafers: Will Ion Implantation Be the Next Upstream Solar Patent Battleground?

April 16th, 2012


As noted in a previous post, solar patent litigation has begun to move upstream to encompass photovoltaic manufacturing equipment. 

Some recent public statements by PV production equipment maker Silicon Genesis (SiGen) about startup equipment vendor Twin Creeks Technologies (Twin Creeks) hint at more upstream solar patent trouble on the horizon. 

This Greentech Media story quotes a SiGen press release in which the company said it was “closely following” Twin Creeks announcements of a process “similar to [SiGen’s] beam-induced wafering…”  Additional SiGen statements and intimations included the following:

As the pioneers of beam-induced wafering and assuming it is not utilizing any of our technology embodied in our 100+ U.S. patent portfolio which we are monitoring…

The fact that Twin Creeks Technologies was founded by a venture capital firm shortly after it evaluated SiGen’s beam-induced wafering business plan and technology, including our prototype 2 million electron volt implanter is of concern.

According to Cleantech PatentEdge™, SiGen owns at least 24 US, European, and international patents and applications, including U.S. Patent No. 7,687,786, entitled “Ion implanter for non-circular wafers” and 7,750,322, entitled “Ion implanter for photovoltaic cell fabrication” (Ion Implanter Patents).

The Ion Implanter Patents are directed to an ion implanter (100) comprising an ion source (120), a high-voltage extraction assembly (130), a dipole filter magnet (140), an accelerator (150), and an endstation (160).  The accelerator (150) applies an accelerating voltage between the dipole filter magnet (140) and the endstation (160).

This brings ions in the ion beam (145) to the implant energy necessary to shoot the ions into a silicon wafer before they reach the endstation (160).  The endstation (160) includes a disk (162) with pads (182) disposed around it.  The ion beam (145) irradiates silicon wafers disposed on the disk between inside circle (184) and outside circle (186), and the ions settle into the wafers at a finite depth. 

According to the same Greentech Media piece, the ions are then heated, and the result is a silicon wafer that cleaves off the substrate along the crystalline plane.

According to Cleantech PatentEdge™, Twin Creeks owns 48 US, European, and international patents and applications, including two recently issued patents relating to ion implanters, U.S. Patent Nos. 7,989,784, entitled “Ion implantation apparatus and a method” and 8,044,374, entitled “Ion implantation apparatus” (Implantation Apparatus Patents).

The Implantation Apparatus Patents are directed to an ion implantation apparatus comprising a process chamber (10) having part spherical upper and lower walls (12, 13), a high-voltage enclosure (15), and an accelerator tube (18), which interconnects the the high voltage part of the vacuum chamber within the enclosure (15) and the process chamber (10). 

The process chamber (10) contains a process wheel (14).  Substrates for processing are carried in the process chamber (10) about the periphery of the wheel (14).

A beam of ions for implantation is produced in an ion source structure (16) within the high voltage enclosure (15) and directed into the magnet structure (17).  The magnet structure (17) bends the ion beam so that unwanted ions can be filtered from the continuing beam, which is directed towards the process chamber (10).

The acclerator tube (18) includes an electrically insulating element to allow the ion source and structures (16, 17) to be held at very high voltage and contains electrostatically biased electrodes to accelerate the ion beam to the required implant energy for delivery to the process chamber (10).

As mentioned above, solar cell manufacturing equipment has previously been the subject of patent litigation.  One lawsuit involved competitors Despatch Industries and TP Solar (TP) and their manufacturing equipment used for heat-treating silicon wafers for solar cells.  That case ended in a victory for TP.

Ion implantation may be the next upstream solar patent battleground.

Enough NOxious Gases: Biogas & Electric Cuts Emissions from Anaerobic Digesters

April 13th, 2012

 Biogas & Electric, located in San Diego, California, has developed technology that reduces harmful emissions created during anaerobic digestion.

Anaerobic digestion may serve as a renewable energy source, and reduce methane when utilized at wastewater treatment plants, dairies, and landfills. Seth Burns was intrigued by benefits of turning waste to a resource, but realized one of the biggest challenges for the anaerobic digester industry was to reduce the harmful emissions generated by the process.

Stringent standards enforced by the California Air and Resources Board (CARB), and other regional air boards require the reduction of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emitted during the anerobic digestion process. NOx is known to cause an array of health problems including asthma.

In an effort to make the anaerobic digestion process more environmentally sound, Mike Matelich, process chemist and inventor of the process, and Burns partnered to develop a way to reduce NOx and SOx emissions.

The technology is an add-on solution to the biogas engine. The add-on puts the biogas engine exhaust in contact with the liquid waste stream from the anaerobic digester.

“Mike determined that certain chemicals are endogenous to the waste stream, such as ammonia, which can scrub the NOx out of the exhaust stream,” stated Burns.

The bench scale prototype chemical reaction that occurs reduces NOx and SOx, the precursors to smog and acid rain respectively, by greater than 95% each.

Burns and Matelich hope to replicate these results in the field at full scale. The following diagram outlines the process:

U.S. Patent No. 8,012,746, entitled “NOx Removal Systems for Biogas Engines at Anaerobic Digestion Facilities,” describes the Biogas and Electric technology (‘746 Patent).

According to Burns, a provisional patent application was filed at the end of December 2009. The non-provisional, filed September 15, 2010, enjoyed accelerated examination via the now-defunct U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Green Technology Pilot Program (GTPP) (read about some fast track alternatives post-GTPP here). The ‘746 Patent issued September 6, 2011, just under a year from the non-provisional filing date.

The company has received funding from USDA-NIFA SBIR Phase I and Phase II research grants and from Waste Management. A full-scale dairy-based demonstration project is being constructed in Imperial County, California. The technology will be utilized on a 300 kW biogas engine.

Previous technologies have only been able to reduce NOx to 9ppm, but Burns and Matelich are confident that their technology will be able to reduce NOx emissions enough to meet the stringent CARB standard of 2 ppm.

Burns and Matelich plan to build a demo project within the wastewater treatment industry, and begin installing their solution for revenue.

* Rosemary Ostfeld is a contributor to Green Patent Blog.  Rosemary recently completed both her undergraduate and graduate education at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.  She double majored in Biology, and Earth & Environmental Sciences as an undergraduate, and received her Master’s in Earth & Environmental Sciences.

Hastings Cleantech Roundtable to Explore IP and Green Biz Law

April 10th, 2012

I will be speaking at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law’s Third Annual Cleantech Roundtable in San Francisco this Friday, April 13th.

The event will explore the legal needs of clean tech companies with three panel discussions, each focusing on a different topic or phase of the clean tech company’s life cycle.

I will join Jonathan Axelrad of Wilson Sonsini and Bao Tran of PowerPatent on the first panel, entitled “Legal Issues in Launching a Cleantech Startup.”  This panel will look at some of the legal issues facing clean tech startups such as corporate structure, financing, and intellectual property protection.

The second panel is entitled “Making the Desert Bloom:  Key Issues in Developing Renewable Energy Projects” and will include distinguished panelists Jason Hannigan of GCL Solar Energy, Michael Ginsburg and Miles Imwalle of Morrison & Foerster, and Christopher Hilen of NV EnergyBrian Orion, a partner at Environmental Advocates, will moderate.

The last panel is entitled “The Legal Minefield:  Mergers and Acquisitions in the Cleantech Industry.”  The distinguished panelists are Mark Mitchell, former COO, CVP and General Manager of Serious Energy, Mark Perutz of DBL investors, Greg Chin of Latham & Watkins, and Hastings Professor Abraham CableGreentech Media Editor-in-Chief Eric Wesoff will moderate.

The Hastings Agenda includes more detailed descriptions of the panel discussions.

Also, see here for more information and to register for the event.  By the way, the event is FREE! 

I hope to see you there.

Newton Would Be Proud: Gravity Power’s Technology Has Great Potential

April 9th, 2012


By spending years in the flywheel industry, Jim Fiske learned a great deal about grid-scale energy storage and its true requirements. After determining that flywheels were not the best option, he and the investor of his flywheel company founded Gravity Power. Gravity Power’s technology has the potential to change energy storage worldwide.

Presently, pumped hydro provides nearly all grid-scale energy storage, but requires vast quantities of water, two very large reservoirs, and extreme differences in land elevation. It can be difficult to fulfill all three necessary parameters, and a big plant can cost over a billion dollars with delayed financial returns.

Gravity Power’s technology is similar to the concept behind pumped hydro, but overcomes many of pumped hydro’s limitations. Each Gravity Power Module is a closed system that operates underground. Thus, once the device is initially filled with water, no additional water is needed. A 40MW unit is 30 meters in diameter and 500 meters deep, while a 250 MW unit is 80 meters in diameter and 500 meters deep.

To generate energy, the piston drops, and forces the water through a Francis-style pump-turbine that drives a motor/generator. To store energy, energy from the grid causes the pump to force water down the pipe and lift the piston.  The following figure from Gravity Power’s website illustrates the process:

According to Fiske, Chief Technology Officer and Founder of Gravity Power, the company is currently doing a deep cost-analysis of the technology. The bigger the unit, the more cost-effective it becomes. Mr. Fiske anticipates that a 250 MW storage device would cost approximately 250 million dollars.

The company is currently seeking additional investors, and countries including Germany, South Africa, China, and India are interested in utilizing the technology. Utilization of this type of energy storage could help compensate for the variability of wind power and other renewable energy generation techniques.

The company currently has patent applications for its technology all over the world. According to Cleantech PatentEdge™, LaunchPoint Technologies, from which Gravity Power was spun out, owns seven U.S., International, and European patents and applications.

U.S. Patent Application Publication No. 2009/0193808 (‘808 Application) lists LaunchPoint as the owner of record. Entitled “System and method for storing energy,” the ‘808 Application relates to an energy storage system in which electricity can be generated by gravitational movement of a slidable piston.  The claims of the ‘808 Application were recently allowed, and the company anticipates that a patent will issue in the next few weeks, with several others in the works.

The company’s goal is to complete a small-scale demonstration module first to verify the technology. According to Mr. Fiske, one of the great benefits is that the units can be easily built by civil engineering companies all over the world because no exotic materials are needed – just concrete and steel. The technology is based on existing technologies, but this will be the first time the pieces will be combined in this particular way.

“A big advantage of our technology is its level of efficiency. Efficiency is expected to exceed that of pumped hydro, and be as high as 83%. In addition, it is quite feasible to build many gigawatts of storage per year due to the ease of construction of the Gravity Power Modules,” stated Mr. Fiske. Sounds like an energy storage device with great potential.

* Rosemary Ostfeld is a contributor to Green Patent Blog.  Rosemary recently completed both her undergraduate and graduate education at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.  She double majored in Biology, and Earth & Environmental Sciences as an undergraduate, and received her Master’s in Earth & Environmental Sciences.