02 October 2011

Inventions and Patents

I realize that it's been awhile since my last entry. During that time I have been unusually busy at work. What follows are two short blogs with a long third one - an explanation of how inventions happen and how patents really work - in between.

I carried out - with the help of five other people, 300 kg of equipment, and a large helicopter - a series of Controlled-Source Audio-Magnetotelluric (CSAMT for obvious reasons) soundings inside and around Mount St Helens. These are geo-electrical soundings that allow me to "see" the conductivity structure beneath the array of equipment down to about 900 meters depth.

We were looking for water. Why? If a volcanic edifice is saturated with water, there is internal pore-pressure pushing outwards, making the volcanic edifice more likely to fall apart with a moderate provocation (a small eruption or earthquake). In April and May 1980, the north face of Mount St Helens volcano bulged northward about 1 meter each day for over a month. But instead of just part of the front (north) face falling off, the largest landslide in recorded human history on 18 May 1980 reached all the way back into the core of the volcano and well beyond, taking out a huge amount of the south side of the volcano with it. To know if Mount Rainier or Mount Hood are truly dangerous - there are huge populations exposed to each - we need to know where the water in them resides.  This is one of the tasks I proposed several years ago to the Volcano Hazards Program as I rotated out of the chief scientist position, and my proposal was accepted. There wasn't much money allocated (we are the USGS, not the Department of Defense, after all), but my salary was funded half-time to work on this problem.


I also prepared for, then traveled to Waikaloa on the Big Island of Hawai'i, to give a talk on my most recent patent application to the Marine Technology Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) annual meeting. They sure picked a nice venue! I was able to show that a subtle physical property discovered in 1912 (and first published by Conrad Schlumberger in 1920) called Induced Polarization ("IP") could be used to:

  • detect disseminated sulfides beneath the Earth's surface - such as huge porphyry copper deposits around the world and Black Smoker sulfide deposits on the seafloor,
  • detect and characterize other minerals, including certain oxides of titanium and Rare Earth Elements,
  • map heavy placer minerals, including these and intimate associations of gold, diamonds, and platinum-group elements beneath the seafloor,
  • map and characterize dangerous and toxic urban human effluent ("anthropogenic waste") in sensitive bays, estuaries, and sounds,
  • map and characterize disseminated oil plumes in the deep ocean.
IP detects minerals because an inducing voltage causes ions from a surrounding electrolyte (on land this is the groundwater) to adsorb onto the mineral surface. Release that inducing voltage, and the ions will re-equilibrate, that is, "bleed off" the mineral surface, giving rise to a small but measurable signal. Understanding this is relatively easy; making it actually work requires a lot of sophisticated electrical engineering.

The first three bullet items above relate to a pair of patents awarded in 2001 to the Department of Interior. These patents are owned by the Secretary of Interior, but are referred to as "the Wynn patents," after the initiating scientist/inventor. The final item on the list above was the subject of my thoughts when I first heard of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. By August 2010, the Macondo Well blowout had poured over 200,000,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf. "How can I help my country at this time of need," I asked myself? My thinking went along these lines: 
  • the IP effect behaves like a capacitance; 
  • a classic capacitor consists of two conductive metal plates separated by a dielectric material, usually in the form of oil; 
  • oil droplets immersed in highly-conductive seawater were topologically equivalent 
  • --> therefore IP should be able to detect that oil.

What followed was yet another education for me: my "technicalese" explanation and diagrams were sent from the USGS Technology Enterprise Office in Reston, VA, to a patent attorney who works for the US Army Redstone Missile Defense office in Birmingham, Alabama. Beginning seven months later, she began to correspond with me about it, using a ".mil" email address. Joan (the attorney) then converted my 21st Century language into an odd, late-18th-Century English ("...a perfect embodiment of which is...") to be acceptable to the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

Joan also revised my diagrams to remove all text, and added tiny lines attached to numbers for each thing I had explained in the application - and quite a few more that I thought were obvious (my drawing of a boat sure looks like a boat). A good patent attorney usually has, in addition to a law degree, the equivalent of an additional engineering degree.

Joan also patiently explained to me how claims work. Claims are the bulleted elements at the end of a patent description that are usually longer than the patent description itself. This invention claims to do this and that... but if the claim is too general, then competitors can rightly claim that it's simply a tactic to stifle development in a broad range of technology. Apple, for instance, patented "touch screen technology", but ultimately this was thrown out by the courts as being too broad, stifling legitimate creative innovation. If the claims are too specific, on the other hand, then a competitor can make a slight tweak to the invention - a different electrode or cable-type for instance - and then claim that it's something different. This will then by-pass the patent as if it didn't exist. Obtaining a patent in the U.S. does NOT guarantee protection against intellectual thieves in China or India or Japan.

That's why patent attorneys, at lease, exist.

As the patent was submitted to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Joan warned me: this application now has a provisional number, but it will likely not even be looked at by a patent examiner for at least two years. Such is the huge and growing backlog in the USPTO as new patent applications double and triple each year. It is "just another government agency" that sees no increase in funding year to year, and like others is being asked to do more with less.  

In the meantime, I had initiated a CRADA - a Cooperative Research And Development Agreement - with an ocean engineering firm in Seattle and a geophysical instrumentation firm in Tucson. The agreement is carefully vetted by ethics officers and government lawyers to ensure that everything is done above-board and correctly. The agreement said I would provide technical advice, and my CRADA partners would commercialize the technology I invented. 

Interesting note: they also pay license fees into the US Treasury! They also conduct laboratory measurements under my direction (the USGS can no longer afford to do much laboratory work), and build cables to tow behind ships to prove the technology. Together these two companies carried out the largest IP survey in human history off the coast of South Africa. This survey discovered a huge, previously unknown titanium-sand resource in two immense pockets beneath the seafloor. Everyone was happy about that success.

The CRADA partners also agreed to fund my travel to Waikaloa to represent them and our joint work - so this travel to a paradise world was not done at Taxpayers' expense. By giving the presentation, I was representing the USGS, Williams & Associates, and Zonge International to the rest of the marine technology world. Over 800 people heard me speak about the technology, including my boss' boss' boss' boss: the USGS Director, Dr. Marcia McNutt.  She later sent me an email thanking me for representing the USGS with a major technology breakthrough - she added that "it warmed my heart." 


It seems to be the order of things that the day after I completed the final important element of a series of complicated tasks, I allowed myself to stop and deal with a worsening plumbing problem in our house. At 7:30pm Tuesday, while tired and helping a friend and professional plumber solve a strange blockage in the hot water line of the shower, I stepped out of the bathtub, and ran my bare foot into a length of perfectly-wedged copper tubing leaning against the tub. Because of the way tubing is cut, beveled outside-in, it forms a perfect circular knife. I filetted a chuck the size of my thumb off the sole of my foot in such a way as to expose the most vascular structure possible. Translation: it bled all over me, the carpet, and the tub, and even my utterly calm and efficient wife ("GET your head down on the floor... RAISE your foot HIGH over the edge of the bathrub... HOLD this surgical wrap for me while I open this sterile gauze...") couldn't stop the bleeding. A Kaiser emergency room physician more or less could, but it required four painful injections (not counting the tetanus shot) and 10 stitches. 

At least now there was nothing critically necessary to do, so I took my first sick-leave in 25 years and sat around the house updating websites for two days. I learned a lot this past month... including how capable and loving my wife is.


No comments:

Post a Comment