Archive for March, 2013

Clean Tech in Court: Green Patent Complaint Update

March 28th, 2013

In the last month several green patent complaints were filed in the fields of LEDs, advanced batteries and smart grid.

 

LEDs

Bayco Products, Inc. v. Philips Intellectual Property & Standards

Bayco Products (Bayco), a Texas company that makes lighting products including LED flashlights, brought a declaratory judgment action against Philips requesting a judgment that three Philips patents are invalid and/or not infringed.

Filed February 26, 2013 in federal court in Dallas, Texas, the complaint alleges that Philips is “seeking to exact ill-deserved royalty payments” from Bayco in connection with its XPP-5450 Series Dual Function Headlamps.

The patents-in-suit are U.S. Patent No. 6,234,648, entitled “Lighting system,” U.S. Patent No. 6,250,774, entitled “Luminaire” and U.S. Patent No. 6,692,136, entitled “LED/phosphor-LED hybrid lighting systems.”

 

Trustees of Boston University v. Seoul Semiconductor, Ltd.

Trustees of Boston University v. Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.

In October of 2012, Boston University (BU) sued Korean LED maker Seoul Semiconductor (Seoul) in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.  The original complaint was covered here and asserted U.S. Patent No. 5,686,738 (‘738 Patent). 

The ’738 Patent is entitled “Highly insulated monocrystalline gallium nitride thin films” and directed to gallium nitride semiconductor devices and methods of preparing highly insulating GaN single crystal films in a molecular beam epitaxial growth chamber.

BU’s second amended complaint, filed March 6, 2013, adds U.S. Patent No. 6,953,703, entitled “Method of making a semiconductor device with exposure of sapphire substrate to activated nitrogen.”

The accused devices include gallium nitride thin film LEDs and LEDs made by exposing a sapphire substrate to activated nitrogen and depositing Group III nitride semiconductor material.

BU also asserted the ‘738 Patent against Samsung in a complaint filed in the District of Massachusetts on March 21, 2013.

 

Advanced Batteries

Celgard, LLC v. Sumitomo Chemical Company, Ltd.

Celgard is a North Carolina company that manufactures specialty membranes and separators for lithium ion batteries.  On February 22, 2013, Celgard filed a patent infringement complaint against Sumitomo Chemical Company (Sumitomo) in federal court in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The complaint alleges that Sumitomo is inducing infringement of U.S. Patent No. 6,432,586 (‘586 Patent) by selling lithium ion battery separators to its customers knowing that the separators will be incorporated into finished lithium ion batteries.

The ‘586 Patent is entitled “Separator for a high energy rechargeable lithium battery” and directed to a separator including a ceramic composite layer and a polyolefinic microporous layer.  The ceramic layer has a matrix material and is adapted to block dendrite growth and prevent electronic shorting.

 

Smart Grid

Electric Power Group, LLC v. Alstom, S.A.

In July of 2012 Electric Power Group (EPG), a Pasadena, California, developer and distributor of electric grid monitoring solutions sued the French conglomerate Alstom and its U.S. division Alstom Grid in the Central District of California for alleged infringement of U.S. Patent No. 8,060,259 (’259 Patent).

The ’259 Patent is entitled “Wide-area, real-time monitoring and visualization system” and directed to a wide-area real-time performance monitoring system for monitoring and assessing dynamic stability of an electric power grid.

EPG filed a first amended complaint against Alstom on February 19, 2013 in which it added a claim for infringement of U.S. Patent No. 7,233,843, entitled “Real-time performance monitoring and management system.”  The accused products are Alstom’s “PhasorPoint” and “e-terravision” solutions alone or in combination with other wide area measurement systems-based smart grid offerings.

Patented Nautical Torque Process Has Ups and Downs

March 25th, 2013

I received an interesting press release about something called Nautical Torque technology, a process for generating energy from the rise and fall of ships and other large vessels with the tide.  It was invented by the late Cahill Maloney; his son, Galen, is now carrying the torch.

The process is described and claimed in U.S. Patent No. 8,143,733, entitled “System and method for providing nautical torque technology” (‘733 Patent). 

The ‘733 Patent is directed to a system for nautical torque tidal movement power generation (100) comprising an arrangement (110) of modular, electrically interconnected power generating devices (120) positioned to receive kinetic energy from the movement of water.

Accelerator gearboxes (130) are mechanically coupled to large masses (113).  A torque conversion unit (160) includes an upper drive arm (161) coupled to one large mass (113), a lower drive arm (162 coupled to a second large mass (113), cotter pins (162), a circular sprocket (163), a guide sprocket (164), a reversible gear unit (165), pylons (166), and a circumference sprocket (167) coupled to the reversible gear unit (165).

According to the ‘733 Patent, this assembly generates energy when the large masses move up and down with a tidal movement of about one foot per hour:

[The system comprises] at least one tidal movement wave 112 wherein said tidal movement wave 112 travels at a rate of substantially 1 foot per hour in a substantially vertical translation such that said large particles of mass 113 floating on a surface of said tidal movement wave 112 would travel a total of one foot per hour . . . wherein said large particles of mass 113 produce movement of 1 foot per hour in a substantially vertical direction and transmit energy output to one or more electrical transmission power generating devices 120.

According to the Nautical Torque web site, Mr. Maloney is working on a prototype to demonstrate the scalability of the technology.  More info about the inventor and the project can be found here.

Alphabet Generates Energy from Nanostructured Thermoelectric Devices

March 21st, 2013

Alphabet Energy (Alphabet) is a Hayward, California, company that develops thermoelectric materials and products that convert waste heat to electric power.

Alphabet’s web site provides this overview of the concept of thermoelectrics:

Thermoelectrics are solid-state semiconductors that turn heat into electricity. They generate power cleanly and with few or no moving parts from a difference in temperature. They are like solar panels that use heat–instead of light–as an energy source. Alphabet is revolutionizing the way we think about both thermoelectrics and the prototypical functional material, silicon. We have developed and licensed the key technologies to use silicon as a thermoelectric generator.

Alphabet owns at least five U.S. patent applications relating to its thermoelectric materials.  U.S. Application Publication No. 2011/0114146 (‘146 Application) is entitled “Uniwafer thermoelectric modules” and directed to a single wafer device (100) including functionalized n-type regions (113) and p-type regions (115) with shunts (123) formed overlying those regions from the front side (102) of the wafer substrate (101).

A partial portion of wafer material (101A) is removed from the back side (103) of the substrate.  One or more conductor shunts (125) are formed overlying the exposed n-type regions (113) and p-type regions (115) from the back side (103). 

According to the ‘146 Application, this device can be used to output power from thermoelectrics:

As an implementation of the present invention, the two external electric leads 131 and 132 can [be] used as two electrodes for outputting electric power induced by thermoelectric effect when the single-wafer device 100 is subjecting the conductor shunts 123 at the front side 102 and conductors 125 at the back side 103 to a temperature gradient.

Alphabet’s other patent applications relate to nanostructures and fabrication processes for nanostructure thermoelectric devices.  They are U.S. Application Publication Nos. 2012/0152295, 2012/0247527 (‘527 Application), 2012/0295074, and 2012/0319082

The ‘527 Application is entitled “Electrode structures for arrays of nanostructures and methods thereof” and directed to a thermoelectric device comprising an array (110) of nanowires (120) with spacings (150) between them.  The spacings (150) may contain fill materials (160) having a low thermal conductivity.

An electrode structure (195) is formed on the array (110) of nanowires (120) by covering protruding segments (135) with semiconductor contact materials (170).  A contact layer (174) provides electrical connection between each of the protruding segments (135), and a shunt (180) may be formed to provide an electrical connection between the contact layer (174) and other devices in the thermoelectric device.

According to this Greentech Media piece, thermoelectrics is a “brilliant pursuit” which no one has brought to market economically at scale yet.  Perhaps Alphabet Energy will be the first.

Green Patent Acquisitions: Dow Meshes with NuvoSun

March 18th, 2013

 

Thin-film solar startup NuvoSun was recently acquired by Dow Chemical.  Founded in 2008 by former MiasSole CEO Dave Pearce, NuvoSun designs PV cells and modules based on flexible Copper Indium/Gallium di- Selenide (CIGS) technology.

NuvoSun owns at least two pending U.S. patent applications, Publication Nos. 2011/0300661 (‘661 Application) and 2012/0174967 (‘967 Application).  The ‘661 Application is entitled “Solar cell interconnection method using a flat metallic mesh” and directed to methods of interconnecting thin film solar cells using metallic meshes.

Both grids (2a, 3a) of the flat metallic mesh incude a solid region, or tab (4), to make the interconnection between solar cells, and a mesh region (5), which forms the current collecting grid.  The mesh region (5) includes connected wire-like elements (6) with square or rectangular cross sectional shape.

Mesh region (5) has open patterns that may range from narrow diamonds (2a) to nearly perfect squares (3a).  According to the ‘661 Application, an advantage of this invention is that from any point in the mesh there are multiple paths to the tab (4) whereas for conventional grids there is only a single line.  Therefore, the net resistance for the mesh is lower than for conventional grids of similar geometry.

The ‘967 Application is entitled “Photovoltaic modules and mounting systems” and directed to PV modules including a support member (300) for supporting one or more PV cells.  The support member (300) includes hexagonal though holes (301).  A slot (304) defined in the support member (300) accepts an electrical attachment member for coupling a PV module to an electrical bus bar.

The ‘967 Application also describes and claims a mounting frame (800) including two outer horizontal support members (801), an inner horizontal support member (802), a support member (803) orthogonal to the outer and inner support members, and vertical support members (804).  The  innter horizontal support member (802) is configured to hold an electrical bus bar.

According to this Greentech Media article, the NuvoSun technology is probably “destined for Dow’s solar shingles,” the building-integrated PV product Dow has been promising.

New Lawsuit to Decide Fairness of Solar Paste Patent PR

March 14th, 2013

In an interesting case of ancillary legal wrangling, DuPont has filed a declaratory judgment (DJ) action asking an Oregon federal court to declare that the company’s press release and customer letters about its patent infringement suit against Heraeus Precious Metals (Heraeus) does not violate unfair competition laws.

The DuPont DJ complaint describes a dispute arising from a press release and customer letters the company disseminated shortly after suing Heraeus for infringement of U.S. Patent No. 8,158,504 (‘504 Patent) in Portland, Oregon in June 2012 (see the complaint here).  The ‘504 Patent is entitled “Conductive compositions and processes for use in the manufacture of semiconductor devices – organic medium components.”

DuPont also sued Heraeus back in September 2011 in Delaware for infringement of U.S. Patent No. 7,767,254, entitled “Paste for solar cell electrode and solar cell” (see the complaint here).

According to the DJ complaint, the press release at issue, dated July 19, 2012, stated:

The company recently filed two lawsuits against PV metallization paste supplier Heraeus and one against its customer Solar World, for infringing on DuPont patents for DuPont Solamet PV metallization pastes.

The customer letters said that:

DuPont Microcircuit Materials has recently filed two lawsuits in the U.S. against PV paste supplier Heraeus for infringing on its patents for Solamet photovoltaic metallization pastes and one against its customer SolarWorld for using “infringing” materials.

Both the press release and the letters editorialized as follows:

Intellectual Property (IP) theft [] is widespread and the issue seems to be growing in the current climate of [this] industry.  [IP theft] has the potential to threaten the [PV] industry broadly at a critical time in its development.

According to the DJ complaint, in the Oregon patent infringement suit Heraeus filed a counterclaim against DuPont for unfair competition, asserting that the statements in the press release and customer letters were false and misleading. 

The counterclaim was subsequently dismissed, but the DJ complaint says that Heraeus’s counsel recently told DuPont that Heraeus intended to assert an unfair competition claim in the Delaware court.

This is not the first time ancillary litigation has erupted over PR in connection with a green patent infringement suit.  Several years ago, Nichia sued its LED rival Seoul Semiconductor for false advertising when Seoul disseminated press releases saying it had “substantially prevailed” in its litigation with Nichia, when in fact, it was found to have infringed four Nichia design patents.

Class Action Suit Says Sunrun’s Electricity Price Ain’t Right

March 11th, 2013

A Greentech Media piece picked up an interesting item:  a recently filed class action lawsuit accusing residential solar provider Sunrun of making deceptive statements about the rising cost of electricity to make its solar installations more attractive to consumers.

The complaint, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges that Sunrun’s central marketing message is that increases in electricity prices will result in cost savings for customers who have Sunrun solar systems installed at their homes.  But, according to the complaint, Sunrun “deceptively states with certainty something that is inherently unknowable.”

Class plaintiffs quote the following excerpts from Sunrun’s web site:

You already pay a lot for electricity today.  In the future, you’ll pay even more.  Nationwide, electricity rates have been increasing 6% per year over the last thirty years.  When you go solar, you take control of your electricity costs and opt out of utility rate increases.  You’ll save money with solar by locking in a lower rate for your electricity than you will pay for the next thirty years.  Many Sunrun customers start saving money right away.

How much money will I save with Sunrun?  …your solar electricity rate is fixed and will rise very gradually.  This means as your utility rate increases its rates over time, the amount of money you’ll save with Sunrun will also increase over the life of your agreement.

According to the complaint, the representations that consumers would save money due to increasing electricity prices was misleading because, for example, energy prices at Southern California Edison have leveled off in recent years.  The complaint also cites a number of articles reporting that natural gas prices have fallen considerably recently due to increased shale gas production.

Perhaps most salient is this short piece on CleanEnergyAuthority.com, quoted in the complaint, in which Jeff Mayer, the CEO of UK company Soluxe Solar says:

Most leasing contracts are sold on the assumption that the consumer will save money because utility costs are expected to increase over the years.  But, the truth is that utility prices have been flat to down and consumers are being misled.

According to the complaint, customers whose current electricity prices are not as high as estimated by Sunrun are already losing out, and those whose electricity prices do not rise as expected in the future will also experience this cost disadvantage.  Ultimately, however, even if Sunrun’s customers do not end up paying more for solar, the company’s unequivocal marketing message is still false and misleading:

But whether the cost disadvantage is experienced or not, the promise of a system sure to result in cost advantage was false when made and likely to deceive consumers into leasing a system they otherwise would not have.

One difficult question is how to classify this case.  At bottom, it’s really about economics, not environmental benefits, so greenwashing is not a comfortable fit.  But to the extent the cost savings at issue flow from renewable energy equipment, perhaps it’s not unreasonable to label it as some form of greenwashing.

The alleged deception here relates to electricity prices generally, which are mostly driven by fossil fuel production.  So the allegations are probably closest to reverse greenwashing, which I define as allegedly false or misleading statements not about environmental benefits, but about the negative environmental impact of certain products or services (keeping in mind the caveat, of course, that the adverse impact alleged here is economic, not environmental).

For more on reverse greenwashing, see my initial post on the ChicoBag case here.

Altenera Pitches Wind Energy from the Future

March 7th, 2013

Altenera Technology (Altenera), a Maryland company, was recently chosen as one of just eight finalists to present at the Future Energy Pitching session of the ARPA-E Innovation Summit last month.  Altenera achieved this honor due to its Oscillating Reed Wind Harvester technology.  

The company calls its technology BreezBee®, which uses vibrating reeds to harvest energy from the wind under “virtually all wind conditions.”

The BreezBee® technology is covered by U.S. Patent No. 8,258,644 (‘644 patent) entitled “Apparatus for harvesting energy from flow-induced oscillations and method for the same.”  The ‘644 patent describes “a device and method for harvesting electrical power from kinetic energy of a flow” where “the external gas or liquid flow causes a vibration of the assembly . . . producing electricity in proximity of a magnetic field.”

The ‘644 patent can be better explained with reference to Figure 1(a), reproduced here from the patent.  As the fluid (7) flows over the elastic element (3), the integrated conductive element (8) moves back and forth in the (9) direction with reference to the magnetic field (8) created by the magnetic field source (6), producing electricity. 

The magnetic field should be “fully or substantially perpendicular” to the conductive element.  The shape, form, and materials of the vibrating assembly can vary based on the application, and “are defined by the maximum conversion efficiency for a particular application.”

The BreezBee® represents a functional application of the ‘644 patent.  The LEGO-like hexagonal modules shown here allow for easy combination into arrays of various sizes, making them “easily customizable for any situation.”  

The ‘644 patent discloses a number of such situations: (1) attached to flying vehicles to capture high altitude flows; (2) used in confined flow passages such as pipes or HVAC ducts; (3) used as a flow sensor while simultaneously providing the power to transmit gathered flow information; and (4) implementation as roof panels, providing a more cost-effective alternative to solar cells.   

Further, because this technology has no moving parts, it is “a virtually maintenance-free source of electrical power.” 

While one blog has noted that the details on some of the specifics were limited during the presentation to investors, the modularity, low-maintenance, and customization makes the BreezBee® an attractive alternative to turbine power. 

And if the noiselessness claim (see ieee blog above) made by Altenera’s CBDO, Chase McCarthy, is accurate, BreezBee® would have a notable advantage over turbine power by side-stepping the noise pollution problem that has plagued turbine power.

 

*Cliff Brazil is a contributor to Green Patent Blog.  Cliff is currently in his second year at the University of Kansas School of Law in Lawrence, Kansas.  He received his undergraduate degree in Metallurgical and Materials Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado.

Study in Green: ICTSD Report Analyzes Fast Track Data

March 4th, 2013

The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development just published a timely and informative report on the accelerated examination programs for green technology patent applications offered by a number of national patent offices around the world.

Antoine Dechezleprêtre, a Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, conducted the study and wrote the report.

Entitled “Fast-tracking Green Patent Applications,” the report is the first empirical analysis of these programs.  It addresses important questions such as the number of patents accelerated under the programs, the technologies of participating applications, whether and how much the programs reduce time from filing to grant, the value of fast tracked patents, and knowledge diffusion of the patented inventions.

Data were analyzed for the programs in Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US).  Brazil and China now have green patent fast track programs, and are discussed briefly, but they are too new to be analyzed in the study.

The study looked at the volume of green patents accelerated in each program as well as the proportion of participating applications as a share of total green patents.  It found that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) had by far the most patents (3,533), followed by the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) with 776 and the Korea Intellectual Property Office (KIPO) with 604.

For most programs, a very small share of the average annual number of green patents participated.  In Australia, Canada, Japan and Korea between 1% and 2% of green patents requested acceleration, though the percentages were substantially higher in the US (8%), Israel (13%), and the UK (20%).  A related finding is that the vast majority of participants in the US and UK programs were domestic applicants, with only small percentages applying to the programs from abroad.  Perhaps harmonization of the programs, as I suggested here, would boost participation particularly across borders.

The study found that technologies relating to climate change, particularly renewable energy, comprised the vast majority of fast tracked patents, with some variations across different countries.  In the US, wind power was the major technology (boosted significantly by GE, by far the number one assignee in the US program), with carbon capture and storage big in Australia and Canada. 

Perhaps most important in view of these programs’ raison d’être, the empirical evidence presented shows that the green patent fast track programs reduce the time from filing to grant by several years compared to ordinary examination.  The time to grant has been cut between 42% and 75% across the programs, with the best improvement delivered by the UK program.

As to the applicants, the report found that most are small entities:

We found that fast-track users differ statistically from non-users in that they tend to have smaller revenues and smaller but faster-growing assets.  In other words, the fast-tracking programme seems to appeal particularly to start-up companies in the green technology sector that are currently raising capital but still generating small revenue.

Two intriguing issues explored by the study are the value of the patents applicants elected to accelerate in the programs and the knowledge diffusion effect of the fast tracked patents.  Using several common patent value metrics, the study found that fast tracked patents were of significantly higher value than green patents issued after ordinary examination:

Overall, our results consistently show that fast-track patents are of higher value than equivalent patents going through the normal procedure.

The study used forward citations to measure diffusion of the technical knowledge in fast tracked patents compared to non-fast tracked patents and found that accelerated patents exhibit a higher citation rate, indicating greater knowledge diffusion:

Compared with patents filed in the same month, of similar value but not fast-tracked, fast-track patents received twice as many citations in the same time period.  The estimated impact of fast-tracking on forward citations ranges between 50% and 150%, depending on whether citations made by examiners are included or not.  Thus, there appears to be strong evidence that green patent fast-tracking programmes accelerate the diffusion of knowledge in green technologies in the short run – i.e., during the first years following the publication of the patents.

You can get more information and download the report here.