As the world's political leaders gather for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021, our collective attention once again turns to the impact of human endeavours and industrial development on our climate.

Of course, not all technology or innovation is deleterious to our environment. In fact, in many instances scientific discoveries have been harnessed by subsequent inventors to produce more sustainable alternatives to traditional technologies. The efforts of these inventors are aided by a robust patent system, which provides useful insights from the vast library of discoveries and innovations of those who have gone before them.

Take solar energy, for example. The development of the solar panel (now a common feature on many Australian rooftops) is a great example of how such cumulative efforts, carefully recorded within our international patents registers, can help to progress technology with considerable global benefit.

Patent protection encourages knowledge sharing

Inventors often seek patent protection for the purpose of preventing copy-cat inventors from making use of their intellectual property. However, a useful by-product of the patent system is that it is inherently designed to promote knowledge sharing by requiring the details of the patented invention to be placed in the public domain, in return for the exclusive right to exploit the invention.

Under sections 40(2)(a) and 40(3) of the Australian Patents Act, it is a requirement that a patent specification provide a clear and complete disclosure of the claimed invention, so that a person skilled in the art has sufficient information to "re-make" the invention, or achieve what has been claimed in the specification, without undue burden or the need for further invention.

The relatively recent introduction of an "experimental use" defence as part of the Raising the Bar patent reforms in Australia, also provides inventors with the opportunity to build on prior research without concerns that they may be inadvertently engaging in patent infringement.

Thus, by encouraging knowledge sharing, patent systems can act to reduce the duplication of research and development effort, which in turn assists inventors to improve on existing published inventions.

Solar panels: an innovation (hundreds of) years in the making

Use of magnifying materials to transform sunlight into fire has been documented throughout history, and as far back as the 7th century B.C. But it was in 1839 when a young physicist named Edmond Becquerel first discovered how to generate electricity from sunlight by immersing two plates of gold or platinum in a conducting solution and exposing them in an uneven way to sunlight. The electrical current generated became known as the photovoltaic effect.

In the years that followed, mathematicians, scientists and physicists from across the globe proceeded to build on the published works of their colleagues.

Notable early contributions included:

  • French mathematician August Mouchet, who was the first to register a patent for a solar-powered device (1860s);
  • American inventor Charles Fritts, who created the first solar cell capable of an energy conversion rate of 1 to 2 percent by coating selenium with a thin layer of gold (1883);
  • Russian scientist Aleksandr Stoletov, who created the first solar cell based on the photoelectric effect discovered by German physicist Heinrich Hertz;
  • American inventors Edward Weston (1888) and Melvin Severy (1894), who each patented early versions of the solar cell; and
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  • Harry Reagan (1897), who invented and patented a means for collecting, storing and distributing solar heat as needed (U.S. patent 588,177).
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  • Finally, in 1954, inventors Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson of Bell Laboratories realised the commercial utility of solar powered cells. The trio built on the work of engineer Russell Ohl's 1941 U.S. Patent 2,402,662 in which Ohl disclosed the first silicon solar cell, tweaking thin strips of silicon in an attempt to turn it into a strong conductor of electricity. The final product was a solar cell that was 6 percent efficient and could power an electric device for several hours. This was achieved primarily by using silicon instead of selenium, and was patented in U.S. Patent 2,780,765.
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On the front page of its April 26, 1954, issue, the New York Times stated that the construction of the first solar module to generate useful amounts of power marks "the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind's most cherished dreams—the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization."

Inventions from the past can guide cleaner energy technology for the future

The development of solar panels and solar technology has continued to progress over the years to modern times. Many thousands of subsequent patents have been filed that incorporate photovoltaic systems, which transform light into electricity using semiconducting materials such as silicon. As a result of these innovations and developments, millions of home-owners around the world are now able to access renewable technologies to harness the energy of the sun, as a cleaner, environmentally-friendly alternative to more traditional energy sources derived from fossil fuels.

From this one example we see that the benefits of patent protection can extend well beyond the term of the temporary monopoly over the use of the patented invention, to stimulate further technological advance in the technical field, thereby contributing to the betterment of society as a whole.

Now that's worth pondering, next time you catch a glimpse of those solar panels on your roof.

This article forms part of DCC's Sustainability and IP initiative.

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