University of Utah officials aren't camping at the mailbox awaiting good news from the federal Patent and Trademark Office.
A patent expert said on Friday that the university has filed five patent applications on cold nuclear fusion research and has two to four more in the hopper.But it could be a long wait - at least two to three years - before these patents, or any others filed, are eventually granted.
The patent race, fueled by intense international competition, is long and tedious, said Tom Major, licensing manager of the U.'s Technology Transfer Office.
But, needless to say, it's an essential race to win. Patents are the key to the state scoring high economic returns from the research of U. chemistry professor B. Stanley Pons and British co-developer Martin Fleischmann.
The two rocked the science world when they announced on March 23 that they had created fusion with a simple electrolysis process.
Pons believes that more than 60 university and private laboratories have partially verified the claims that nuclear fusion can be sustained at room temperature.
But less than a dozen - a South Korean lab was the latest on Friday - have publicly announced their results. The rest, Pons believes, are keeping quiet - likely to protect possible patent applications.
A team of Washington State University physicists, for example, has filed a patent application for a theory the scientists say could be a new type of fusion process and might help explain recent experiments conducted at the U.
Gary S. Collins, a Washington State associate professor of physics, said Friday that a paper describing the theory has been submitted to a scientific journal, and a series of experiments will begin immediately to test the theory.
No details of the theory will be disclosed until the paper is reviewed by other scientists and accepted for publication, Collins said. He said the delay in releasing information, which he estimates will be about a month, is necessary to protect the patent application and to conduct experimental tests of the theory.
Utah, though, prefers believing it's leading the cold nuclear fusion race because it filed its initial patent applications before Pons and Fleischmann announced their breakthrough.
But there's no sense taking any chances either, Major said.
"As new information becomes available, we try to incorporate it in the next application," he said. "When we think we have something new that's important, we file it with each new application."
The work of U. chemistry professors John T. Simons and Cheves T. Walling is a good case in point.
The scientists announced this week that they had come up with an explanation for the cold fusion reaction. Their "internal conversion," or helium-4, experiments were incorporated in one of the patent applications filed by the U.
Each application is broad, evident by the first one that was filed for a "heat generating apparatus." It's also all inclusive.
"They put the fence around the invention," Major said. "What's in the fence will be protected; what's outside will not."
Is the long process worth the hassle?
The state thinks so and is spending $500,000 just to hire attorneys to protect patent rights to continuing cold fusion experiments.
"As it progresses out of Pons' lab, every little nuance scientists develop that may be potential in commercialization, we will have to consider filing a patent on it," Major said. "We could even envision someone filing a patent some day on putting this in a car. We hope our first several (applications) are broad enough to anticipate those types of uses."
However, that is not Pons' biggest concern. He has initiated 19 new experiments and next week will join lobbyists seeking federal funds to finance them.
Pons and Fleischmann on Tuesday will meet with officials of Cassidy and Associates, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm hired by the U. to help convince Congress that any detailed fusion research should be conducted in Utah.
The scientists Wednesday will testify before the House Science Space and Technology Committee. The hearing, scheduled for morning, will be a prelude to discussing the formation of a National Research Center at the U.
Often 8 to 12 months
In between each filing, patent attorneys wait - usually eight to 12 months - for any word on each application.
And then the news isn't always good.
"They typically attempt to reject the patent based on what other technology or `prior art' is out there," said Tom Major, licensing manager of the University of Utah Technology Transfer Office. "Then you argue why your invention is `patented over' or different from that prior art."
In another six to 12 months, federal officials can issue an acceptance or rejection.
For each patent; attorneys write the following:
- Description of the background of the technology.
- Brief description of the technology.
- Detailed description of the invention.
- Claims - numbered paragraphs that attempt to describe the invention.