Batteries are all around us in the news. First, the Wall Street Journal and other media are reporting that the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating microscopic “dendrite” formation as possible causes for the “dreamliner” lithium ion battery problems. Ironically, when I did lithium ion battery research two decades ago, dendrite formation was a key issue driving the research.
Then, tonight, President Obama noted new materials and more powerful batteries in the State of the Union Speech.
Hopefully, we can all agree on the goal to develop safer AND more powerful batteries – and hopefully it won’t take another 20 years.
The OSTP has provided updated information noting two efforts by the Obama administration related to materials. This includes the older Materials Genome Initiative and the newer Critical Materials Initiative (a Department of Energy program). Other efforts from the Obama administration in connecting technology and economic policy include the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. The Materials Genome Initiative is now about a year and a half old (dating back to the first Obama term), so 2013 will be an important year to see where it is going. The Critical Materials Initiative is announced as a new, post-election effort and appears to focus on the shortage of rare earth metals and lithium and clean energy industry. Hopefully, fiscal cliff and budget haggles will not slow progress in these arenas.
PCAST recently submitted a very interesting, readable, and searchable report to the OSTP on federal policy for the future of basic research funding and commercialization (124 page pdf). Nanotechnology was mentioned on page 22 as an example of benefits of basic research including its influence on energy:
“-Nanotechnology research, on the heels of coordinated Federal investment, is leading to advances in areas such as new drug delivery systems, more resilient materials and fabrics, safer and more effective industrial catalysts, faster computer chips, and sustainable development in water and energy resources.”
Nanotechnology also appeared on page 45 with respect to discussion of university “proof-of-concept” centers:
“-The (MIT) Deshpande Center supports emerging technologies, including biotechnology, biomedical devices, information technology, new materials, nanotechnology, and energy innovations. It sponsors a grant program, a catalyst (mentor) program, innovation teams (i-Teams), and events.”
Finally, nanotechnology was mentioned on page 80 with respect to attracting researchers from abroad to come to the U.S.
Commercialization, patents, and technology transfer are important themes mentioned throughout. Nanotechnology is but one of a variety of “labels” used to describe sectors of research for policy analysis. Nanotechnology integrates closely with many of these other “labels.” Hopefully, its importance will not be lost in the integration.
There is another update in the story of the nanotech/cleantech company A123, which recently declared bankruptcy. According to the Washington Post this weekend, “Wanxiang America, the U.S. arm of a Chinese automotive parts giant, won the bidding for a bankrupt Massachusetts-based lithium battery manufacturer that was once hailed as a cornerstone of President Obama’s quest for American dominance in electric vehicles and battery technology.”
“A123 Systems announced Sunday that Wanxiang would pay $256.6 million for all of A123’s technology, its manufacturing facilities in the United States and China, and its contracts with utilities seeking grid storage and automakers seeking batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles.”
“Wanxiang would not acquire A123’s Ann Arbor, Mich.-based government business, which includes all of its U.S. military contracts. Those would be acquired for $2.25 million by Navitas Systems, a Woodridge, Ill.-based provider of energy storage products for commercial, industrial and government agency customers.” Please see the Washington Post article for more details.
Intellectual property concerns of various stripes apparently did not stop the sale, for now at least.
Media reports re A123 System’s bankruptcy confirm that A123′s intellectual property is an important part throughout the lifecycle of a struggling company. While Johnson Controls was an initial suitor for A123′s assets, the Wanxiang Group is also now inserting itself into the bankruptcy proceeding. However, concern is present that the IP could “go to China.”
In any event, stay tuned. Emerging growth companies should recognize the value of IP thoughout corporate lifecycles, including bankruptcy. In the on-going debate about whether to file patent applications in China, the debaters should note key situations such as this A123 situation where Chinese companies and investors are critical factors.
We continue to monitor patent literature for water and liquid treatment technologies related to hydraulic fracturing. This technology is especially important for western Pennsylvania, the center of the Marcellus Shale region. Yesterday, for example, I listened to a speech by Carnegie Mellon University’s president, which stressed the importance of this technology. CMU has a new energy center which will include work in this area. CMU has also published a research guide on hydraulic fracturing.
Recent patents in 2012 which relate directly or indirectly to this subject include 8,273,320 (FracPure Holdings); 8,226,832 (NCH Ecoservices); 8,211,296 (NCH Ecoservices); 8,171,993 (Heat On-the-Fly); 8,158,097 (FracPure Holdings); 8,119,007 (MIT); 8,110,115 (Ibex); 8,105,488 (Anticline Disposal); 8,105,492 (Baker Hughes); and 8,132,632 (ConocoPhillips).
Integrated Water Technologies has an interesting, lengthy video which summarizes the FracPure process. The process includes the water supply, water treatment, and extracting solids from the treated waters.
Congratulations to Carnegie Mellon University for breaking ground on a new energy/nanotech-related building last weekend, as they report on their university webpage:
“Under sunny skies that were later punctuated with daytime pyrotechnics, the excitement was palpable as Carnegie Mellon University broke ground for Sherman and Joyce Bowie Scott Hall — future home to the university’s work in nanotechnology, biomedical engineering and the new Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation.”
Located in western Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon also addressed issues during the ground breaking events about how to handle shale gas and water:
Presenting the four top energy topics voted on by the audience were CMU’s:
- Jeanne VanBriesen, Shale gas development: what’s the story with water?
- Baruch Fischhoff, How will human behavior affect energy futures?
- Ed Rubin, Clean coal: oxymoron, or path to sustainability?
- Jay Whitacre, Can low cost batteries help us to use more renewables and build fewer transmission lines?
Interesting recent article by Professor Josh Lerner on venture capital investing, including a reference to advanced materials (“The Narrowing Ambitions of Venture Capital,” September 6, 2012, Technology Review). Lerner presents a seemingly pessimistic view of the current venture capital world noting sub-themes of the limited scope of investment objectives, too many boom-and-bust cycles, and “mercurial” public markets. (side note: The comments posted to date are generally negative.)
For advanced materials, Lerner writes about explaining the concentration of venture capital into certain sectors, “One answer is that venture funds have done much better in categories where the innovation cycle is short, such as media and software, than in areas like advanced materials and biotechnology, where the time frame for success is longer than the eight-to-10-year life of the typical fund.”
Lerner concludes: “…the venture capital model is no panacea for innovation. The boom-and-bust cycle, the mercurial effects of public markets, and the narrowing of its objectives have made it something far less substantial.”
Hopefully, needed investments in advanced materials, nanotechnology, cleantech, medical devices, health, and the like will be healthy and not be allowed to be sacrificed in the name of a better social life on the internet while physically stagnant in front of a computer screen.
Lerner also has a new book, “The Architecture of Innovation: The Economics of Creative Organizations.”
The National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) is participating in a statement responsive to the “No More Solyndras Act.” The gist is to not “throw the baby out with the bathwater” in “fixing” the government programs that led to the Solyndra problems.
NVCA also reports life sciences investing (biotech and medical devices) was down in Q2, the fourth quarter in a row for decline (see press release on home page for nvca re Q2).
In comparison with life sciences, cleantech was modestly up and featured some of the largest deals in Q2, falling within the “Industrial/Energy” group, including investment deals with Fisker Automotive, Bloom Energy, Harvest Power, and SunRun, Inc. Clean technology is said to cross industries – remains a bit of a mystery what is an industry versus a sector – distinction without difference? Many technologies cross industries. Just explain why a particular classification system is chosen. For many years, it has been said that ”nanotechnology is not an industry,” but I am not sure what is the point of saying that as many things seem to not be industries (e.g., cleantech)? Have not heard a good explanation despite asking a number of persons who make the point.
Also, good to see the Wall Street Journal provide a nanotechnology commercialization story recently. A nanotechnology renaissance could be, indeed, a boom to the economy if the government and venture capitalists can figure out a better model for investing in the physical sciences.
The OSTP has recently posted a report on advanced manufacturing, which identifies eleven “cross-cutting” technologies. Of these, no. 5 is nanomanufacturing and half of the others directly relate to nanotech (e.g., advanced sensing, advanced materials, biomanufacturing, robotics, flexible electronics). The report is about 70 pages long.
The NNI is now presenting to the public a new signature initiative devoted to sensors. Two thrusts are identified: (1) use of nanotechnology in building sensors, and (2) develop better sensing methods for detecting nanomaterials. An associated white paper provides more details.
This is the fifth signature initiative from the NNI. According to the announcement, past sensor work has been held back due to problems with lack of reliability, reproducibility, and robustness. Sensors apply to a broad spectrum of industries, including energy, health, and defense. Certainly, after 9-11, sensors were identified as a key technology associated with homeland defense. Hence, federal thrusts in this sector would seem to make sense.
Some references to commercialization are present. For example, the announcement refers to US Patent No. 7,889,954 as an example of the type of technology upon which they want to build (from the Sailor group at University of San Diego). However, as if often the case with the federal government announcements, the commercialization issues at stake lack detail. For example, no patent studies are noted as part of what is important commercially in work to date. No analysis of the Bayh-Dole system in this sector or of the history of licensing or venture funding for sensor technology is noted. Brief reference to nanomanufacturing is noted (nanomanufacturing is another NNI signature initiative).
The ’954 patent, according to PTO records, is assigned to University of California and the federal government, jointly. Federal money apparently was used to develop the invention. The patent abstract for this patent is below:
An embodiment of the invention is a remote sensor that has an optical fiber terminating in a tip. A thin film porous particle having a characteristic optical response that changes in the presence of an analyte is optically coupled and physically attached to the tip of the optical fiber. The optical response of the particle changes in the presence of analyte, and the particle also serves to concentrate analyte. The thin film porous particle can be functionalized toward sensitivity for a predetermined analyte or analytes. A method of remote sensing exposes the remote sensor to an environment to be monitored for analyte. The thin film porous particle is probed with a beam of light. Reflected light is monitored through the optical fiber for a shift in frequency or intensity.
Have been reading the 2011 book, Bottled Lightning, Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy, by Seth Fletcher. An excellent read for anyone interested in cleantech and nanotech commercialization. The focus is on the lithium ion battery and its scientific, engineering, and manufacturing history. Also, its application to the electric car. The need for high energy density batteries at good cost is a fundamental challenge for nanotechnology (e.g., development nanophosphate battery packs). High surface area is a key parameter directly linked to nanotechnology. The book also draws attention to patent and licensing issues which was interesting. Much bang-for-the buck in this 215 page paperback – enjoy! Here is one public review.
Also, was at the US PTO Cleantech Customer Partnership Meeting this week. In the technical presentation, focus was more on wind and solar.
However, advanced batteries continue to be a critical aspect for cleantech and one of its flagship products, the electric car.
The USPTO is now announcing that its next clean tech customer partnership meeting will be held on June 12, 2012 at 1-5 p.m. at its Alexandria, VA campus (South Auditorium, Madison Building). Those who wish to attend can contact Jill Warden, 571-272-1267 (email@example.com). This will be the second customer partnership meeting; the first was held in May 2011.
Note: the USPTO is no longer accepting the petitions to make special based on its green technology pilot program. Somewhat surprisingly, the leading tech center (TC) for the petitions was TC 2800 (Semiconductors). Less surprising, the other two leading tech centers for the petitions were Chemical (TC 1700) and Mechanical (TC 3700).
Today, a fresh crop of 102 nanotech class 977 patent publications were published at the US PTO. The total now for 2012 is 1,249, which projects to the end of the year to be 3,608. If this continues through 2012, it will be another record year for publishing nanotech 977 patent applications. The numbers go up each year: last year 2011 was 3,439; the year before 2,770 (2010); and before than 1,499 (2009). Hence, the number has more than doubled in but two years.
The 977 nanotech patent applications cover the gamut of nanotech commercial application spaces including personalized medicine, cleantech, defense, semiconductors, and the like. See, for example, US Pat. Pub. 2012/0088235 published April 12, 2012 for rapid DNA sequencing, which is critical to personalized medicine.
Hopefully, government is working with venture capital on how best to adapt the investment systems for commercializing nanotech innovations (e.g., technology transfer from universities and federal labs, including the Bayh-Dole system). Otherwise, many opportunities will be wasted.
Hydraulic fracturing (HF) has become a substantial economic force and the subject of strong policy debate. HF has several connections to cleantech, including issues of water treatment and disposal. Recent patents related to water and cleantech include, for example, USP 8,119,007 to MIT, 8,110,115 to Ibex, and 8,105,488 to Anticline Disposal. U.S. Patents that refer to HF now grant at almost twice the rate as 2009 and before. This year, already, 41 have granted, and the number in 2011 was 224 and in 2010 was 257.
Nanotechnology also should become part of the search for HF technical solutions. USP 8,105,492 to Baker Hughes (“Methods for Recharging Nanoparticle-Treated Beds”) relates heavily to nanotechnology. The patent was not classified as a 977 nanotechnology patent, however. The Abstract shows:
Nanoparticle-treated particle packs, such as sand beds, may effectively filter and purify liquids such as waste water. Proppant beds treated with nanoparticles may fixate or reduce fines migration therethrough. When tiny contaminant particles or fines in these fluids flow through the nanoparticle-treated bed or pack, the nanoparticles will capture and hold the tiny contaminant or fines particles within the pack due to the nanoparticles’ surface forces, including, but not necessarily limited to van der Waals and electrostatic forces. Nanoparticle-treated beds or packs may be recharged by contacting the bed with an inorganic acid (but not hydrofluoric acid) or an organic acid, and optionally followed by subsequent treatment with hydrofluoric acid. This treating substantially removes the nanoparticles and the fine particulates that have been removed from a fluid (e.g. wastewater being treated, produced fluids in a formation, etc.). The particle pack may then be re-treated or recharged with nanoparticles.
Based on review of the US PTO webpage statistics today, the PTO should still be accepting green tech petitions for accelerated examination. The PTO had declared in December that they would stop the program upon granting of 3,500 petitions, or upon reaching the date, March 30, 2012, whichever occurs first. As of the statistics posted today, only 3,375 petitions have been granted. Hence, the program should still be open, in theory at least. However, caution: the statistics also show 335 petitions are being considered, so if a petition is filed now, it may not be reviewed in time.
When this program expires, patent applicants can still file for a track I accelerated examination.
One important nanotechnology is Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD). In ALD, one can build up molecular layers on surfaces at the angstrom and nanoscale levels. The technology traces back to the 1960′s and 1970′s. ALD has a variety of application areas including defense and cleantech (e.g., solar cells, batteries) as well as the semiconductor industry and medical devices.
This week, new patent litigation was announced involving ALD. Its interesting and important that the patent at issue, US Patent No. 6,812,157, is not categorized as a 977 nanotechnology patent (the plaintiff is Atomic Precision Systems and the defendants include Jusung Engineering, Micron Technology, Intel, and IBM. More and more ALD patents and patent filings are emerging. For example, the nanotechnology 977 patent publication database shows a rapidly growing role for ALD. As of today, 106 of the 977 patent publications recite ALD or atomic layer deposition in the abstract or claim. Of these, most of them (76) were published in 2010-today, and 2011 showed more (40) compared to 2010 (30).
Nanotechnology does not get the buzz it used to. ALD, however, illustrates how quietly nanotechnology pushes the technology boundaries, decade after decade, and contributes commercially in a variety of diverse applications. ALD is now positioned as a leading nanomanufacturing method. At a recent nanotechnology conference, the ALD commercialization talk from Cambridge NanoTech was a highlight. Another company, ALD NanoSolutions, recently announced progress with defense applications.
We have been reviewing the President’s budget proposals announced yesterday, February 13, 2012 (fiscal year 2013 President’s Budget). In particular, we are looking at impact on nanotech and cleantech. Some highlights:
First, the NNI was given a 4.1% increase (NNI is National Nanotechnology Initiative). The total would rise to $1.8B.
Second, within the NNI heavy cuts are slated for defense, including DOD (down 20%) and Homeland Security (down 14%).
Third, within the NNI, heavy increases are proposed for Energy (up 40%) and the EPA (up 12%).
Interesting that in the webinar provided explaining the rationale, a research program can be cut for failure for lack of good future prospects. Alternatively, however, a research program can be cut if it is commercially successful and transitioning to the private sector. Hence, the input from government is for those programs in the middle.
The webinar also featured the administration continues to assert that the federal government had a major impact over the past thirty years on shale gas developments.
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu visited Pittsburgh today to review energy, natural gas, and innovation. In his remarks, he spoke of using shale natural gas as a balancing tool for wind and solar power. Chu also stressed the role of patents in innovation.
I noted discussion today at a Nanobusiness Commercialization Association meeting re role of nanotech in shale gas technology and its relationship to cleantech. So awareness of the connections are growing.
Interesting that the administration continues to push that the federal government’s shale gas research of the late 1970′s, in the Jimmy Carter era (and also Gerald Ford), has an important connection with 2012 events in deep shale drilling. Some recent blog activity noted this.
Possibly, or necessarily, shale gas and cleantech can and should arrive at a synergistic relationship.
Of course, for those who know Pittsburgh, competing with Chu in Pittsburgh today for attention was the Steelers introducing their new offensive coordinator. There is always something new.
President Obama’s recent State of the Union address spoke of domestic oil and gas industry including shale gas (“American-made energy”). A leading but controversial technology for this industry is, of course, hydraulic fracturing. A brief review of the patent literature for 2012 confirms that inventors in this area for US patent filings are largely from the US. In a global economy, such domestic concentration for inventorship is somewhat unusual. The concentration of this innovation in the U.S. should be monitored.
As of today, in 2012, 38 patent publications refer to “hydraulic fracturing.” Of these, 27 (71%) list all U.S. inventors, and 32 (84%) list all U.S. inventors or list a majority of inventors as residing in the U.S. Only 5 of the 38 (13%) list all non-U.S. inventors. The leading state for inventors is Texas.
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Interesting example yesterday for how nanotechnology is presented to the public and forming part of our educational systems, including EHS aspects. We visited Virginia Tech for the day as part of my daughter’s evaluation of prospective colleges. Our interests included their engineering departments. In their visitor building, where the tours start, Virginia Tech includes presentation material for several nanotechnology-related issues the university is working on. One was for how nanoparticles can be transported in the environment over long distances. The lead professor is in Geosciences, and collaboration is present with civil and environmental engineering professors. Virginia Tech promotes a “hands-on, minds-on” approach to training its undergrads in engineering, and they indicate that undergraduate research will be part of the project.
Below has more information about the NSF grant on the subject:
Researchers from geosciences and civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech are part of a consortium of four principal universities and five other schools awarded a multimillion dollar grant to study nanotechnology and the environment. This is one of only two such consortiums funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to form a national Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEIN). Total funding for the project is $14 million over five years with an opportunity to renew for another five years. Virginia Tech’s portion of the grant is $1.75 million.
Two items of note today:
1) The US PTO today finally issued its proposed rules to implement its novel procedure called supplemental examination. Bad news; and maybe outrage to follow. They will charge a PTO fee of $5,180.00 “for processing and treating a request for supplemental examination.” They will also charge a whopping fee of $16,120.00 “for ex parte reexamination ordered as a result of a supplemental examination proceeding.” !
Even more, to file a request for reexamination will cost $17,750.00 in PTO fees.
The public has two months to comment (to express their outrage?).
2) Also, I participated in a panel at American University today on patent reform and post-grant review processes. I tried to express the need, conveyed by clients, that the complexities of the patent system need to be held in check, particularly for small business innovators. Now it also appears that costs also appear to be in need of holding in check in the new US PTO. One can only guess the PTO fees for things like inter partes review or post-grant review. Numbers like $40,000 were noted on rumor-like basis.
The humor was along the lines of one can buy a nice car with these fees!?
President Obama delivered his state of the union address tonight. He hit many points of interest to those of us monitoring the high tech ecosystems: innovation, start-ups, basic research, federally-financed labs, universities, clean energy, etc. etc.
Killing cancer cells but leave healthy ones, he said. Sounds like nanotech.
Lightweight vests for cops and soldiers that can stop any bullet, he said. Sounds like advanced materials and/or nanotech.
Curious it was to hear him say that public research dollars were used to develop the technologies to extract natural gas from shale rock. Really? Not sure about that one. We can research more but am dubious from patent literature surveys.
Finally, do not forget his high tech batteries – more nanotech.
Also, the OSTP webpage on the State of Union speech noted more about Dr. Hiroyuki Fujita’s achievements with high tech companies QED and eQED.
The patent system apparently was not stated – a disappointment. Patent system’s regulations in view of reform are increasing heavily these days, which is at odds with his concept to cut regulation.
Nevertheless, the vision is a good one for cleantech and nanotech. Time to make it happen; cut through it time. Vision not enough.
The Department of Energy (DOE) recently featured lead-free solder innovation and licensing from the Ames National Laboratory and Iowa State University. Apparently, $39M of licensing income has been received to date, which makes it now the highest royalty producing patent(s) at Ames. The lead-free compositions are based on tin, silver, and copper mixtures (alloys).
Preventing the introduction of lead into the environment is an important, classic example of cleantech. I can remember in the 1990′s working on patent technologies for lead-free bullets and lead-free paint. A brief search of granted U.S. patents shows 577 granted patents have “lead-free” in the claim and, even more, 838 granted patents have “lead-free” in the claims. Lead-free technology is a leading example of how environmental concerns can drive innovation. For example, some of the lead-free solders apparently have advantages over the lead-containing solders. Some additional, commercally important lessons from this cleantech story:
- government regulation, particularly in the European Union in 2006, apparently was a leading factor in increasing the license income;
- time – roughly a decade – was needed before the licensing income started increasing and maturing;
- the inventions apparently flowed from basic research efforts;
- U.S. patents with Ames inventor Iver Anderson related to this technology include US Patent Nos. 5,527,628 and 6,231,691. These patents used the important claim strategy for materials technology, use of “consisting essentially of”;
- several recent 977 nanotech patent publications show nanoparticle aspects of the technology (see, for example, US Patent Publication 2010/0031848 to Samsung);
- even though foreign filing apparently was not carried out, licensed from companies outside the U.S. apparently were forthcoming