In through the outfield blog

Neil Infield on business and intellectual property

10 August 2012

The cold fusion "patent"

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Martin Fleischmann, co-inventor of the notorious cold fusion patent application, has died, and his obituary is in the Daily Telegraph.

The claim to have achieved cold fusion in a glass jar, rather than by spending a stupendous amount of money, was extraordinary enough, but what also ruffled a lot of feathers was that he and Stan Pons announced their apparent discovery at a press conference. The customary route is publishing an academic paper in a journal.

Four inventors contributed to the invention published as World patent application Method and apparatus for power generation in 1990, with 110 pages of text and drawings. The University of Utah was the applicant. The main drawing is given below.

Cold fusion patent drawing

The search report at the end of the application lists three items of prior art – forerunners – with only the first marked as an X, highly relevant.

The first two pages of the description list four properties for an “ideal energy source” such as utilizing deuterium and ensuring it could be produced in a small, even portable scale. The claim was that the invention produced more energy than was consumed – which is of course what any power plant is meant to do – but others were unable to reproduce the results.

A European patent, EP463089, was granted in 1996 but was revoked in 1998 after opposition by Clean Energy Technologies, a Florida company. I have not looked into their arguments – patents are supposed to be new, and of a patentable nature, but do not have to work in order to be granted. A patent was not granted in the United States. In 1998 the University of Utah stopped trying to defend patent rights (according to New Scientist, 21 March 1998, page 23).

It seems that Clean Energy Technologies was working on rival lines, as they, according to an article in New Energy Times, demonstrated a 1300 watt cold fusion reactor in 1995 at a trade show.

This is the sort of topic that can be researched endlessly, especially as many on the Web still believe that cold fusion is possible. For example there is Harold Aspden’s complaint about how his cold fusion invention has been treated by the US patent office.

This inventor, from Southampton, England had a British patent granted, for which Thermal power generation by electrically controlled fusion is the published application.

13 March 2012

Twin Creeks Technologies' invention for halving the cost of solar cells

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The MIT Technology Review published today an interesting article about Twin Creeks Technologies, a startup company that has an invention that they claim halves the cost of silicon solar cells.

The company's CEO Siva Sivaram has had a pilot plant built in Mississippi. Less silicon is needed and the manufacturing equipment is cheaper. He claims that the company can produce solar cells for about 40 cents per watt, half the present cheapest price. The company has raised $93 million in venture capital.

The usual way to make silicon wafers is cutting blocks of silicon into 200-micrometer-thick wafers. This means that half the silicon is wasted. This thickness is used not because it is needed to produce the power, but because thinner wafers are too brittle and would easily break in the manufacturing process. A thickness of 20 or 30 micrometers would work as well. 

Twin Creeks' technology consists of applying a thin layer of metal to the silicon, using a huge machine illustrated in the article. The use of wire saws and other equipment is also reduced. Crucially, perhaps, the technology can be added to existing production lines. The company wants to sell the equipment, not make solar cells.

What is particularly interesting about the article is that is describes the company as "a startup that has been operating in secret until today". Not that secret, I think -- their World patent application Method to form a photovoltaic cell comprising a thin lamina was published in August 2009.

Thanks to my colleague Peter Gibbs who drew my attention to the article.

22 February 2012

The folding electrical plug

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Last Saturday's Daily Telegraph had an article announcing that "Britain's first folding plug" was going on sale that day, Folding 'Mu' plug launches in Britain.

We are used to electrical devices getting smaller, slimmer and of course more mobile. One thing that hasn't changed is the familiar electrical plug -- it's still bulky, causing size problems (and scratches) when it's bundled with a device carried in a small pouch or in a pocket. The answer was to make a new kind of plug that folded up, as explained in the article and in more detail in the patent, or less technically, shown in the video below. 


Four inventors are credited, led by Min-Kyu Choi, a Korean designer who is a graduate of the Royal College of Art. Choi is quoted in the article as saying that he was "frustrated by the dimensions of the traditional plug, and felt that the existing unit, which dates back to 1947, was out of touch and incongrous with modern design."

International protection was requested and there is already a granted British patent, Electrical plug, with its main drawing shown below.

Folding electrical plug patent image
Mu is a UK registered trade mark, no. 2592224. It's good to see it properly used with the ® symbol on the Made in Mind website for the company formed to exploit the invention. The price ? £25.

17 November 2011

BP and its patent applications for silicon solar cells

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MIT's Technology Review has an interesting article called "How BP Blew its Chance to Spearhead a Solar Innovation". BP had published in 2007 details of a process for transforming raw silicon into large cubes of crystalline silicon, which would be very useful in constructing solar panels, but they dropped the concept -- and the Chinese have learnt from the patent documents.

The cubes that are made can be sliced into wafers for use in solar panels. Every manufacturer is trying to cut costs, and this is especially important in renewable energy, where efforts are made to achieve parity at least with the costs of conventional power sources. The article implies that the new technology would mean an 8% efficiency gain in manufacture.

BP demonstrated the technology in 2006 at a trade show and then published two patent applications.

One was published as an American application in 2007, Methods and apparatuses for manufacturing geometric multicrystalline cast silicon and geometric multicrystalline cast silicon bodies for photovoltaics.

The other was published at the same time and a few weeks ago was republished as a granted US patent, Methods and apparatuses for manufacturing monocrystalline cast silicon and monocrystalline cast silicon bodies for photovoltaics. Below is its main drawing.

BP silicon patent image
BP continued to test the technology and then in March 2010 closed its operation and stopped developing the technology. They later sold the rights to Dutch company AMG Advanced Metallurgical Group, who are making some sales but in a difficult market due to the world recession and, sometimes, the withdrawal of subsidies.

Meanwhile, it seemed that several Chinese companies were working on the same technology. One of these was Suntech, the largest solar cell manufacturer in the world. They have now begun selling solar cells based on the concept.

Roger Clark, who at the time was part of BP's research effort, is quoted as saying that BP was very conservative and wanted to ensure that the resulting wafers were very stable.

Suntech's Chief Technology Officer, Stuart Wenham, says that Suntech got the ideas from an inventor called Fred Schmid whose patents were about to expire. He had formed a company called Crystal Systems and was working on making crystals out of sapphire, and had tried applying the technology to silicon. This is the Frederick Schmid who has a number of US patent documents.

The inventor in BP's applications, Nathan Stoddard, also says he learned from Schmid's work -- from a former employee at Crystal Systems.

It just shows that the old patents can often be a valuable source of information and inspiration, even if the technology sometimes needs to be adapted.

09 August 2011

Nexeon and its use of silicon for lithium-ion batteries

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The BBC website has a story about Nexeon, a company based in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, raising £40 million from investors to scale up dramatically production of a much improved battery.

The technology involves coating lithium-ion (li-on) batteries with silicon powder. This greatly increases performance -- almost ten times the "energy capacity per gram", the company claims. It would mean either much smaller batteries or much longer life. They could be used in mobile phones and also in electric vehicles and other applications.

The key, apparently, is something called sub-micron "pillared particles". When li-on batteries are charged the lithium migrates into the silicon. As the power is used it migrates back out. This places a strain on the silicon, causing cracking and poor performance. By using powder the cycle life is greatly improved.

Nexeon was formed in 2006 as a spin-off company by Imperial Innovations, who commercialise work by Imperial College. The technology was based on Professor Mino Green's work. He was listening to a lecture where it was stated that silicon was theoretically superior to graphite but that the large volume expansion that silicon would undergo would block its use. He thought then of the pillared particles concept.

This is a list of 9 World patent applications in the name of Nexeon which mention silicon in the abstract, all published since 2008.

05 August 2011

The UK's Technology Strategy Board

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In 2007 the UK government created the Technology Strategy Board. its remit is to be the national innovation agency and to "accelerate economic growth by stimulating and supporting business-led innovation", with the majority of the staff having a business background.

One of the things that the Board is doing is creating six specialist technology and innovation centres. Three have already been agreed. These are high-value manufacturing; cell therapies; and offshore renewable energy. The remaining three will be chosen from ten possible candidate areas. Pooling specialist help in this way is a very valuable initiative. 

There is also a list of competitions, where companies or academia can compete for funding in technical research.

There is also a growing number of publications on new technologies, which include a list of case studies, which looked fascinating. Many are on green energy, building techniques, power generation, transport and other topics that interest me.

This is definitely a site to bookmark and to refer to if your interest is in cutting edge technology.

19 April 2011

The secret energy turbine invention

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Rupert Sweet-Escott of Bideford, Devon has won the Ideal Inventor of the Year 2011 competition, as announced on the Ideal Home Show site. It is for an energy-generating turbine concealed within a chimney.

I posted back in February about the competition. Sweet-Escott's UK patent application was published in November 2010 as the Concealed vertical axis wind turbine. Here is its main drawing.

Secret energy turbine patent drawing 

There is a Secret Energy Turbine company website. It states that the product range includes a "tiny Chimney Pot 30cm 25 watt system, suitable for lighting circuits to our 350watt 1meter Clock Tower which could run a whole house". The published patent application lists five older patent documents that are relevant. This was done by the UK IPO, so that they can later decide if they will grant protection to the invention, as it must be new and non-obvious.

I'd missed it, but Sweet-Escott appeared on Dragons' Den in 2009 with a "pedal-powered hang gliding accessory". He got backing from James Caan. There is information about it and a video clip on the Dragons' Den website.

This is a list of the five published patent applications relating to such machines by Sweet-Escott. They include the drawing given below, which is from GB2463519.

Pedal powered propulsion unit for aircraft patent drawing 

09 December 2010

Generating power from the pavements

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I was reading an article in yesterday's Evening Standard about a shopping centre in Stratford, London that will open next Christmas, and came across a mention of pavements that would generate power from the footsteps of pedestrians.

I investigated, and came across an article in May in the Guardian about Laurence Kemball-Cook's invention, Pavegen®. He is described as a 24 year-old design engineer who has become "one of the most feted young innovators in the UK." Stepping on a paving stone creates power, of which 5% is used to light up a large LED in the centre of the stone and the remainder is stored in a battery. "So as the public walk, their footsteps are harvested, and they don't necessarily even realise it's happening. Call it stealth energy." There is a Pavegen Systems website, which says the stone would move less than 5 mm with each footstep.

The article says that urban planners are clamouring for it. I'm not clear how exactly the power is to be used. Patent application GB1007497.9, "Energy harvesting", was applied for by the company in May 2010 which means publication towards the end of 2011 [It's since been published as, indeed, Energy harvesting as an international patent application -- Ed., 16 Nov. 2011].

Here is a video showing the product in action.


There are already patents out there for ways of generating power from footsteps or, more usually, from vehicles going over roadways. Cars have a lot more weight, of course. The inventions often involve using flexible bladders or some other means of taking the pressure, and the power is normally stored in batteries.

There is for example the Vehicle powered roadway generator by Bhajat Mohamad Khalaf of London, with its main drawing shown below.

Vehicle powered roadway generator patent 
Relevant patents are widely scattered in the classifications, but this is a list of some (mostly relevant) examples using keywords.

Pedestrians using the new paving will feel as if they are moving over soft ground, or a thick carpet, and will go slower as some of their effort in walking is being absorbed by the paving. Maybe not that stealthy after all.

The light effects will be fun, though, especially at night, and I'm sure games will evolve to use those effects.