Patent attorney, Jonathan Lucas overviews five recent advances in technology that give reason for optimism when it comes to climate change.
Is the atmosphere half full or half empty?
Global warming is a gloomy subject. Not surprising, considering the disastrous consequences of anthropogenic impacts on the atmosphere predicted by many. But even an overly cataclysmic vision of the future is not a bad thing if it makes the global community sit up, take notice and take action.
Without making light of the risks, many others feel there is a brighter side. New technologies constantly promise ways to reduce humankind's environmental impact and possibly even ways to reverse past effects.
In that spirit of optimism, this article provides a fleeting glimpse of five recently patented technologies that may help the fight against climate change.
1. Biofuels - Lanzatech
The New Zealand-based company LanzaTech has recently patented a method of obtaining biofuels from industrial waste gases that contain carbon monoxide. Its method reduces carbon emissions and, unlike other biofuel production methods, is not reliant on crops grown on farmland so even its widespread implementation would not be detrimental to global food supplies.
Recently Richard Branson was in New Zealand as Virgin Atlantic announced that it would be using jet biofuel produced using Lanzatech's technology by 2013.
2. Organic solar technology - Konarka
Konarka was co-founded by Dr Alan Heeger, joint winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery and development of organic conductive polymers. Konarka produces a thin, flexible organic solar panel called Power Plastic that can be literally printed off a machine like newspaper, making it cheap to produce and possibly a viable energy source for the developed world. Its flexibility also allows it to be incorporated into building designs in a myriad of ways, unlike traditional rigid, black, silicon solar panels.
3. Biochar - CarbonScape
Many emerging technologies seek to be carbon neutral. But carbon neutrality does not address the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere already caused by humankind. Carbon sequestration refers to the process of capturing this atmospheric CO2 and locking it away. One form of sequestered carbon is biochar, a form of charcoal that is made from biomass and locked away in the ground.
New Zealand based CarbonScape has recently patented the use of microwave technology to convert waste biomass into biochar. The result is a low cost method of reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere that has the added benefit of increasing soil fertility.
4. Integral Fast Reactor - Hitachi GE Energy
Nuclear power polarizes opinion. Some argue it is inherently dangerous and point at the difficulty of safely disposing of the bi-products. Others think it is an essential fuel source for the future and its dangers are now well managed and in any case fewer than the indirect effects of traditional fossil fuels.
One exciting emerging technology is a type of nuclear reactor called an Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). IFRs use the dangerous bi-products of other nuclear power stations as a fuel, releasing the stored energy missed by the first power station and rendering the waste considerably easier to safely dispose of. Furthermore, it is impossible for IFRs to go into meltdown.
US company Hitachi GE Energy has recently been granted a patent1 for an IFR reaction process and is now looking to put it to widespread use. In late November 2011 it made an offer to the UK Government to build a reactor to use up the waste of an existing nuclear power station within 5 years, at no cost if it does not work. Once the existing waste is used up the IFR would keep recycling the fuel, extracting ever more of its energy.
5. Nuclear fusion - Tri-alpha Energy
Nuclear fusion is arguably the panacea to the world's energy needs. Unlike nuclear fission, which is the form of reaction used in today's nuclear power stations, fusion power would be inherently safe, produce virtually no harmful waste materials, and yield large amounts of energy from a source that is effectively limitless (sea water).
Despite the hype, the production of fusion power has proved technically very difficult. Being able to usefully harness energy from the process is perennially thought to be several decades away.
But every now and again a promising breakthrough is made. Recently, a secretive US company called Tri-alpha Energy (so secretive we can't find its website) has had a patent granted for a promising fusion process called field reversed configuration (FRC). It has previously stated that it believes a prototype for commercial nuclear fusion could be achieved before 2020.
The technologies discussed above are emerging, not without their own problems and far from a complete solution. But they do promise ways to produce energy with reduced environmental, social and economic effects compared to existing methods.
It is encouraging to note that companies are taking the steps of patenting these technologies. This shows they believe the technologies have enough commercial potential that can be realised in the near future to be worthy of protection under the 20-year term of a patent. Instead of giving companies a monopoly2 patents offer a fast path to market through licensing. This enables the rapid and widespread adoption of technologies. It also ensures financial rewards are received, which are critical for rewarding innovation and encouraging further research.
In the past, technological advances have provided unexpected solutions to global problems. We should take great comfort in the thought that necessity will continue to breed inventions like the good mother it is.
1A proprietary right in an invention which provides the owner with an exclusive right for up to 20 years to make, sell, use or import the invention. In exchange for this monopoly the patent is published so that others can see how the invention works and build on that knowledge. The patented invention may also be used by the public once the patent lapses.
2A patent grants the patentee a monopoly in the invention that is the subject of the patent. The monopoly extends to the exclusive rights to make, sell, use or import the invention.
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James and Wells is the 2010 New Zealand Law Awards winner of the Intellectual Property Law Award for excellence in client service.