The obstacles to developing new alternatives for the world’s insatiable appetite for limited and environmentally degrading fossil fuels might surprise you. It takes investment capital and engineering skills to bring any new invention or technology to market. It also takes permission from Uncle Sam or your local government. In particular, the United States patent process is fraught with risk, intimidation, and close-mindedness by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
There are distinct advantages to obtaining a patent. The fundamental benefit is that a patent provides exclusive rights to manufacture and sell a specific invention for a period of 20 years starting from the date the application is submitted. The application must be accompanied by enough detailed information about the invention that anyone skilled in the appropriate field could build a working model of the invention from the data supplied in the patent application. The potential for profit is real, but complicated U.S. patent laws can make the process seem like a leap of faith.
The “Patent Application Publication Act of 1995” allows for the publication of detailed patent information for a full 18 months after the application is submitted, even if the patent has not been granted. In addition, The Patent Reexamination Reform Act of 1995 permits large, well-funded companies to challenge an individual inventor’s patent application prior to granting the patent.
The company behind this request for a reexamination can remain secret to the inventor, and such a company can request reexaminations repeatedly, therefore delaying the patent grant significantly. These two new laws stand firmly for the interests of corporate America and strongly against the entrepreneurial individual. They also reduce the likelihood that American industry will permit the introduction of potentially competing ideas and inventions against present or future market positions.
Unfortunately for innovators and entrepreneurs who wish to bring energy-saving or energy-reducing inventions to market, the story gets worse. Inventors of new energy technologies in particular have a difficult time obtaining a patent. The USPTO is apparently fundamentally opposed to approving patents for any type of new energy technology that defies the laws of thermodynamics and thereby appears to “endanger (the) oil, coal, and gas industry.”
Under Section 181 in U.S. Patent Law, once a patent application is submitted, the Commissioner of the USPTO, “the Atomic Energy Commission, the Secretary of Defense, and the chief officer of any other department or agency of the Government designated by the President as a defense agency of the United States” has the power to “withhold the grant of a patent.” It seems only one invention has been granted a patent that included claims of producing greater energy output than the apparent energy input. This particular U.S. patent was granted for a cold fusion process that is owned by the CETI Corporation in Texas.
In case an individual is still committed to bringing a revolutionary “green product” to the market, the U.S. government, with its bedfellow corporate America, holds one last trump card. A little-known law called the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951 enables the U.S. Patent Office to block the issuance of a patent when it believes the technology could “be detrimental to the national security.” An inventor is sometimes turned down for unknown reasons but nevertheless issued a “secrecy order.”
If the inventor strays from secrecy, they must swear to secrecy the people they informed or send the patent office the name, address, and other information of the people they told. There could be a variety of motives at work with this tactic, whether it be that the patent office is confiscating the idea because of its potential governmental importance, sheltering big money-making industries from potential loss, or giving corporations an additional advantage in any legal battles that might arise from competing patents.
An inventor has little chance of recovering any of his or her financial investment once a secrecy order is imposed. It’s virtually impossible to determine the full range of inventions that have had or may have a secrecy order imposed under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951. Once an invention is mandated under the Secrecy Act, the inventor is obligated by law to not even reveal that the invention has been confiscated.
Inventors have the right to go to court in an attempt to have the secrecy order removed. If an inventor can prove that the invention is public knowledge, then the very notion of keeping it a secret is rendered null and void. However, the strategy for circumventing the potential secrecy order, such as publicizing detailed information about the invention prior to obtaining a patent, opens the door for large corporations to infringe on an invention and can set the stage for costly legal battles.
If a patent is granted, the inventor is vulnerable to expensive legal suits in two basic ways. First, a company can sue the inventor claiming that he or she stole the technology from them. The company can also begin manufacturing and selling the invention using the information supplied in the publicly-published patent application.
A company may hire engineers known as “patent busters” who review desirable patented technologies and find ways to make slight changes to the invention or produce the same basic device without infringing on the patent. Even if the company has no intention of producing the product for long (a solar lawnmower for example), it will probably put the original inventor out of business.
In addition to the challenges from the U.S. government, foreign countries that are not legally obligated to abide by the U.S. patent, such as China, are free to manufacture and sell the invention outside the U.S.
Seemingly legitimate inventors and scientists often butt heads with the USPTO and governmental blockade. Pons and Fleischmann were the two scientists that claimed to have proven the validity of the cold fusion process. The media initially embraced their discovery, but within a matter of weeks, the duo found themselves rejected. The media’s turn-about was based on reports that the scientific community was not able to duplicate their experiments.
Despite the heated controversy, Toyota was very interested. They contacted the inventors and provided them with $9 million and a facility in Monaco to continue their research. They have also acquired foreign patents for their cold fusion process.
One further example concerns Joseph Newman, who invented a motor that reportedly produced a greater energy output than the apparent energy input. He attempted to patent the device, but it was rejected by the USPTO because his claims appeared to violate the laws of thermodynamics.
This unsuccessful fight to obtain a patent lasted for years and cost Newman over $1 million. What’s more, “Better than 30 physicists, nuclear engineers, electrical engineers and electrical technicians have signed Affidavits attesting to their belief in the validity of Newman’s Motor: an electromagnetic motor/generator that could supply every American’s home, farm, business, automobile and appliance with electrical power at a fraction of the present cost.”
It should come as no surprise that special interests like oil companies and countries whose economies are tied to the oil industry have a vested interest in any energy technologies that would compete with fossil fuels. Currently, many foreign countries and corporations are actively engaged in industrial espionage, which creates a situation that can hamper the successful marketing of any new energy technology.
In the battle between special interests and the general good of the average citizen, it appears that industry still retains the upper hand. The underlying fact is that our current technology, or lack thereof, reflects our global consciousness. Technology and consciousness evolve together, and as long as the more powerful and dominant forces in government and corporations continue to focus on money rather than higher goals for successful sustainable survival, our lack of foresight can only hurt us.
Energy Solutions for Transportation
In the U.S., cars are responsible for 25% of the greenhouse gases produced and 20% of all greenhouse gases generated worldwide. Automobiles and other conventional motor vehicles are a major source of the pollutants that create smog and acid rain, damage the lungs, and release other harmful substances that exacerbate conditions such as asthma and heart disease.
What You Can Do
- If you are considering buying an automobile, look for a more fuel-efficient, less polluting model, think about trading in that old gas guzzler for a more fuel-efficient car. A vehicle that gets 20 miles to the gallon will emit about 50 tons of carbon dioxide over its lifetime. Double the gas mileage and you cut the emissions by half. Investigate the many new ultra-clean alternative fuel vehicles available. Reconsider extra features such as automatic transmission and 4-wheel drive – they are often unnecessary and eat into your gas mileage.
- Cut driving miles: Each gallon of gas your car burns releases about 22 pounds of atmospheric-warming carbon dioxide. Cutting your driving by just five miles each day would contribute to keeping tons of carbon dioxide from entering the air.
- Carpool: If every car carried just one more passenger on its daily commute, 32 million gallons of gasoline (and the pollution produced by using it) would be saved each day.
- Leave the car at home: Get in the habit of riding buses or trains as often as you can. For short distances, ride a bike or walk whenever possible (think of the people you can meet and what good shape you’ll be getting into).
- Encourage dedicated streets for bicycles and pedestrians: Encourage politicians and civic leaders in your community to demand bike lanes and pedestrian malls, and push for traffic-calming techniques like speed bumps, raised crosswalks, and extended and widened sidewalks. The more pedestrian-friendly and bike-friendly an area is, the more people will walk and ride and the less they’ll drive. This means less congestion, less energy consumption, and less pollution.
- Demand that automakers put “Earth-smart cars” on the road.
- Keep your car in good condition: Get your engine tuned up regularly, change the oil, and keep the tires properly inflated. Regular maintenance improves gas mileage and performance, reduces emissions, and extends the life of your car. Under-inflated tires, a clogged air filter, or a poorly tuned engine will reduce your fuel economy and generate more air pollution.
- Be sure your wheels are properly aligned and your brakes properly adjusted to minimize rolling resistance.
- Check and replace the air filter regularly. Your car’s air filter keeps impurities in the air from damaging internal engine components. Not only will replacing a dirty air filter improve your fuel economy, but it will also protect your engine. Clogged filters can cause up to a 10% increase in fuel consumption. Studies have shown that a poorly tuned engine can increase fuel consumption by as much as 10-20% depending on a car’s condition. By following the recommended maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual, you will save fuel, and your car will run better and last longer.
- Practicing fuel efficient driving techniques can improve fuel economy by more than 10%. In highway driving, over 50% of the energy required to move your car down the road goes to overcoming aerodynamic drag (pushing air out of the way). As you drive faster, aerodynamic drag and rolling resistance increase. As a result, at speeds above 55 mph, fuel economy decreases rapidly. By driving 65 mph instead of 70 mph, you’ll save gas.
- Avoid Unnecessary Idling: Warming up your car isn’t necessary for most cars today. No matter how efficient your car is, unnecessary idling wastes fuel, costs you money, and pollutes the air.
- Combine errands into one trip: Several short trips taken from a cold start can use twice as much fuel as a longer multipurpose trip covering the same distance as when the engine is warm. Trip planning ensures that traveling is done when the engine is warmed-up and efficient.
- If you can stagger your work hours to avoid peak rush hours, you’ll spend less time sitting in traffic and consume less fuel.
- Telecommute if your employer permits it
- Take advantage of carpools and ride-share programs. You can cut your weekly fuel costs in half and save wear on your car if you alternate driving with other commuters. Many urban areas allow vehicles with multiple passengers to use special HOV lanes.
- Consider using public transit.
Some other ways to make a difference
Support sustainable agriculture Organic/Sustainable/Small Scale farms are not as dependent on fossil fuel consumption. Your food will be healthier and taste better!
- Try to buy organic produce and foods: Or buy directly from organic food growers and suppliers, farmers markets, and small scale producers. Check out websites such as the OrganicHub, which provides an easy way to link to organic products, producers, wholesalers, retailers, and organizations in your area.
- Look into Community Supported Agriculture: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) cooperatives bring together local farmers and consumers. As a member of the cooperative, you pledge to cover farm operation costs for the season. In return, you share in the harvest. CSA farms are not all organic, but they all strive to operate sustainably.
- Invest Responsibly: Many people want to consider more than just the rate of financial return when investing but don’t have the necessary information. Socially responsible investing lets you know that the companies your funds support are not big-time polluters, producers of harmful products, or bad corporate citizens.
- Investigate investment portfolios with a conscience: Socially responsible portfolios have more than tripled since 1995, with more than one in ten dollars invested in the U.S. estimated to be part of such portfolios (some resources to check out include Calvert Group, Pax World Fund, and the Coop America Guide). Insist on entrusting your funds to companies that use your personal and social values as a measure when making decisions about where to invest your money.
New technologies promise to bring clean, renewable energy in the future, but you can take action today to save both the environment and your hard-earned dollars at the same time.
On average, Americans waste as much energy on a daily basis as two-thirds of the world’s population consumes. Gas-guzzling vehicles, inefficient furnaces, leaky appliances, and poorly insulated buildings all contribute to wasted energy. Every American has the power and responsibility to reduce energy waste at home, at work, and on the road.
Energy-efficient cars, homes, offices, and products will cut utility and gasoline bills, increase comfort, and decrease pollution day after day, year after year. They pay off now and in the future.
Many of us feel strongly about energy use and the environment, but fail to get involved and make our views known to policy makers. Contact your elected representatives. Whether it’s on the local, state, or national level, let the people who represent you in government know what you think and what you expect concerning issues that are important to you.
Write, phone, and email your mayor, governor, and state and national legislative representatives to let them know you’re watching and that you vote.