An economically important bolt — really.
A recent post covered General Electric receiving a patent from the US Patent Office's Green Technology Pilot Program for a wind turbine doorway. When initially running across the patent, we pondered whether the bolts that are used to hold the door to the door frame are also considered green tech. Little did we know at the time …
Exactly three weeks later, USPTO granted GE and inventor Denis Heide (Munster, Germany) US 8,186,923, Connecting arrangement and method of fastening a bolt.
The abstract provides a summary:
A connecting arrangement is provided. The connecting arrangement includes a bolt with a fastening portion at one end thereof, which has one or more grooves; a cotter having a conical shape and one or more convex cuts on the inner side of the cotter adapted for fitting with the one or more grooves of the fastening portion of the bolt; two support blocks, each having a thread on the outer side, wherein at least one of them is on the inner side adapted for fitting to the conical shape of the cotter; and a fastener having a thread on the inner side, wherein the fastener is adapted for being screwed on the support blocks.
Claim 1 provides some excellent patent-speak:
A connecting arrangement, comprising:
a bolt including a fastening portion including one or more grooves, whose circumference is differentiable between at least two portions;
a cotter including at least two parts and including an essentially conical shape on the outer side and a axial bore when the at least two parts are put together, wherein the axial bore provides one or more convex cuts on the inner side of the bore, wherein the convex cuts are adapted for fitting with the one or more grooves of the fastening portion of the bolt;
at least one first support block including a thread on the outer side;
at least one second support block including a thread on the outer side, wherein the at least one second support block is on the inner side adapted for fitting to the conical shape of the cotter;
and a fastener including a thread on the inner side, wherein the fastener is adapted for being screwed on the support blocks.
What does this have to do with clean tech? According to the Background of the Invention, "Especially in very large applications, such as wind energy systems, the screw connection has to meet high security demands. The flange connections of wind energy systems are also screwed and the required strength is achieved by using large screws."
Curiously, the same sequence of events occurred for this ‘923 patent as for the ‘674 patent — the filing of the Petition to Make Special, some volleying back and forth with the examiner and then, USPTO miraculously, accepting the petition. In this case, GE submitted the petition to USPTO on July 12, 2011. The same Tech Center 3600 QA Specialist dismissed the petition on July 22, 2011. Once again, item 4 requirements were the basis of the Tech Center dismissal. The detail continues a theme we saw in the ‘674 doorway patent:
In regard to item 4, the claimed bolt-nut/connecting system for being used in a wind energy system would not materially contribute to the development of renewable energy resources or energy conservation since the bolt-nut/connecting system cannot generate energy or convert the mechanical energy into electrical energy. It is unclear which part of the bolt/connecting system conserves energy. A bolt-nut/connecting system plays no role in the operation of the wind energy system. In addition, as the claimed bolt-nut/connecting system and the resulting support structure may not necessarily be used in a wind energy system, petitioner's assertion of the bolt-nut/connecting system's contribution to the development of renewable energy resources or energy conservation is entirely speculative. As stated in the notice, the materiality standard does not permit an applicant to speculate as to how a hypothetical end-user might specially apply the invention in a manner than [sic] could materially contribute to category (A) or (B). Also see MPEP §708.02 (VI). Accordingly, it is not agree that the application on its face meets that materiality standard.
GE filed a Request for Reconsideration on August 24, 2011 which contained some artful linguistic gymnastics on why a bolt is critical to green energy. This time they,
respectfully submit[ted] that the Federal Registry does not require that an invention generate energy or convert mechanical energy into electrical energy in order to materially contribute to the development of renewable energy resources or energy conservation. … Embodiments of the present invention materially contribute to the development of renewable energy by providing an arrangement and methods of fastening a bolt that increases the fatigue resistance of a connection in wind energy systems. These measures increase the availability of wind energy as a viable power generating option by reducing maintenance and decreasing costs, and also by reducing wind turbine down time. As a result, embodiments of the present invention promote increased energy production, and thus materially contribute to the development of renewable energy resources or energy conservation.
However, here is text from Federal Register 74FR64666 (found in section III of the Notice) which seems to undercut GE's argument:
Patent applications are also eligible for the Green Technology Pilot Program if the applications are for inventions that materially contribute to: (1) The discovery or development of renewable energy resources; (2) the more efficient utilization and conservation of energy resources; or (3) the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
The term "renewable energy resources" for purposes of the procedure specified in this notice includes hydroelectric, solar, wind, renewable biomass, landfill gas, ocean (including tidal, wave, current, and thermal), geothermal, and municipal solid waste, as well as the transmission, distribution, or other services directly used in providing electrical energy from these sources.
Admittedly, this wording is somewhat open-ended, but "development of renewable energy resources", and the last emphasized clause, strongly suggest that USPTO did not intend the connection and fastening of bolts to be considered eligible under the program. This is supported by the wording of their petition dismissal.
No matter, however, as the USPTO accepted GE's arguments and granted their petition on September 29, 2011. This decision was also signed by the same Tech Center 1700 QA Specialist as the corresponding one for the ‘674 patent.
Did we mention that as of May 29, 2012, the date of the ‘923 bolt patent, the USPTO Green Tech Pilot Program had granted 213 GE patents, out of a total of 1126 issued, or 18.9%? GE's next closest competitor in terms of total program patent grants through May 29 was Ford Motor Company, and its subsidiary Ford Global Technologies, LLC, with 108 patents (9.6%). Certainly, GE has very successfully used the Green Tech Pilot Program to reduce the pendency of its clean tech inventions over the past few years. Given GE"s vast patent portfolio (more than 37,000 as of November 6, 2012), IP prosecution experience, and very large IP staff, these results are not surprising.