20 August 2012

The Hovding® airbag helmet invention

Two Swedish women have designed an airbag helmet as a university project. It is meant for cyclists. Terese Alstin and Anna Haupt had their World patent application System and method for protecting a bodypart published as long ago as May 2007. Below is the main drawing.

Airbag helmet patent drawing

The Hövding® (“Chieftain” in Swedish) is a collar containing an airbag, helium as the inflating agent, and a sensor including gyroscopes and accelerometers. It only looks rather like a helmet when inflated. A USB port is used to charge it, and the act of putting it on activates it. This is quoted from Wired in the Guardian article, Would you trust an airbag helmet ?

Priced at about £300, it is hoped that the helmet will be on sale in the Spring of 2013. The Hovding® website looks like a fashion shoot, reflecting perhaps the fact that the designers are women. The site mentions that there is a Swedish law that cyclists under the age of 15 must wear a helmet, and that there was the possibility of extending it to adults. This dismayed the inventors and many others, who thought helmets impractical, awkward, etc. The inventors said that the product needed to change, to in effect an invisible bicycle helmet. I was pleased to see this -- they were telling their story, accompanied by their photos.

This video clip shows the product in action.


15 August 2012

Make it in Great Britain exhibition

London’s Science Museum has a free exhibition until the 9 September, Make it in Great Britain.

I visited it yesterday. It features numerous products, some huge such as a Lotus sports car or wheels from civil airliners, others small. The idea is clearly to stimulate the imagination of young people. Detailed explanations accompany the exhibits on show. The emphasis was normally on the science or technology behind the products, with no mention of intellectual property that I could see.

I feel that more could have been made of it. I would have liked to have seen more on the stories behind them – why did the company develop the products ? – and how specific problems in making the right product at the right price, and perhaps in marketing them, were overcome.

Above all, as it’s called Make it in Great Britain a mention of where the products were developed or made would have been interesting (this was rarely mentioned), and why it was considered important that we continue to innovate in product design and in production – a comparison with Germany, perhaps ? Voiceovers or films featuring the engineers would also have been welcome.

I suspect that the ideal visitor is probably a clever 14 to 16-year old who finds science fun and who is already interested in a career in design, or production technology.

There are certainly plenty of things to look at, and I learned about a number of products that I hadn’t heard of before. There was an explanation for example of Johnson Matthey’s autocatalyst, made at their plant at Royston, Hertfordshire. They have numerous patent specifications in this sector.

11 August 2012

Sugru®, the silicone blob

I’ve just come across what is apparently quite a success story. It’s a “brightly coloured smelly silicone blob” called Sugru®. That’s how an informative article on the Financial Times’ Entrepreneurship pages describes it.

So what is it ? A pliable substance which quickly sets to form a firm repair or mount or grip for equipment or any other article awaiting attention.

Jane ni Dhulchaointigh is an Irish citizen who while studying product design at London’s Royal College of Art came up with the idea. She admits that her first efforts were terrible. Most products in this area first appear and then a use is sought: here Jane knew what she wanted, and the problem was making the right combination of substances. FormFormForm was founded in 2004, and a £35,000 grant from NESTA was a big help. A couple of years of studying chemistry followed.

It was not until Christmas 2009, though, that they got a break, with publicity from articles in technology magazines such as Wired. Then Time Magazine put it on their list of 50 top inventions of 2010. More than a million pounds has since been raised from investors.

Very unusually, the article gives details of company sales, gross profit and so on. Sales in 2012/13 are projected at £3.9 million with an EBITDA of £800,000. They are based in an old factory in Hackney, in London’s East End.

The company website has a charming “Partial visual history of Sugru”. I always encourage inventors or designers with a passion (most certainly have that) and an interesting story to tell others about it – and why not a video or at least a voiceover ? Part of the appeal is the struggle, but there's also the fact that  the product didn’t come from a multinational’s lab. Comsumers are more likely to feel a connection to the product. Being somewhat artless as on the website is a good idea if it suits the marketing strategy, so long as you keep the finances firmly in mind.

As usual I checked for a patent. No published patent specifications were listed for Jane ni Dhulchaointigh, but for FormFormForm there was a granted European patent, Room temperature curable silicone elastomer composition. Jane Mary Delahanty (presumably her legal name) and three others are named as inventors. An American patent application is pending grant.

I would suggest that the ® symbol be added to the name Sugru on their website, packaging etc. to make it clear that it is, at least in the UK, a registered trade mark. Sugru itself is a good example of a word such as the trade mark Kodak where any mentions on the Web are likely to be of the product.

10 August 2012

The cold fusion "patent"

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.

03 August 2012

The patent for synthetic running tracks

The athletics events start today at the Olympics, my favourite sport at the games. Something that has helped athletes run faster times is the ability to use rubbery synthetic all-weather tracks rather than grass, or the dreaded cinders which I remember from my schooldays in the 1960s. It really hurt if you fell down.

The 1968 Olympics was the first to use synthetic tracks. To avoid damaging the surface too much running spikes have to conform to rules, with a common one being that the spikes cannot be longer than 6 mm.

3M, the Minnesota-based company, originated such tracks with its Paving material and paving surfacing patent, filed in 1962. The technique involves urethane elastomers being poured in situ and hardening. The drawing page is shown below.

Tartan synthetic running surface patent drawings

The story goes that the head of 3M was a keen horseman, and wanted a rubbery surface so that horses would be less likely to get injured. The patent stresses its possible use on racecourses. The cost turned out to be too high for racecourses with their long circuits, while athletic tracks at 400 metres were shorter. Hence it is mainly used for running tracks.

The trade mark 3M used for the product was Tartan®, presumably in homage to Richard Drew’s Scotch Tape®, who also worked for 3M. The original patent for that product was filed as long ago as 1928 as Adhesive tape. Drew himself was named as one of the three inventors on the 1962 patent -- some 34 years later.