Saturday, March 5, 2011

Can You Patent "Something For Nothing?"

Section 101 of the U.S. Patent Act seems simple enough. You can patent a “new and useful” process, machine, article of manufacture or improvements of these things. But the invention has to be “new” and it has to be “useful.” Now, for the invention to be new, two other parts of the statute apply. In 35 USC §102, we have all of the requirements for novelty. And in 35 USC §103, the requirement for non obviousness is promulgated. We’ll discuss those at a later time.

But it might be fun to discuss what it means to be “useful.” How about a machine that gives us more energy output than we put in? How about a perpetual motion machine?

Now, something that can't possibly work, such as a perpetual motion machine, is arguably not very useful. So, in theory, one should not be able to obtain a patent on such a device. But right now, there are at least 8 issued U.S. patents, apparently still in force, that describe what appear to be perpetual motion machines.

For example, in U.S. Patent 7,379,286 "Quantum vacuum energy extraction", issued on May 27, 2008, we read “When atoms enter into suitable micro Casimir cavities a decrease in the orbital energies of electrons in atoms will thus occur. Such energy will be captured in the claimed devices. Upon emergence form [sic] such micro Casimir cavities the atoms will be re-energized by the ambient electromagnetic quantum vacuum.” It certainly looks like we’re getting energy for free. But how are the atoms “re-energized by the ambient electromagnetic quantum vacuum?” Where does that energy come from? The patent states that the “process is also consistent with the conservation of energy in that all usable energy does come at the expense of the energy content of the electromagnetic quantum vacuum." Good!

Now, there is a lot of fancy talk about “zero-point-energy,” “Casimir cavities” and “a supply of fluid characterized by its ability to… take in electromagnetic radiation from the ambient surroundings.” What “fluid” would not do that? Anyway, even though we have no idea what all that means, there is something about it that doesn’t seem quite right. This is an issued patent that describes a device that is supposed to give us energy for nothing.  And all we have to do is to harvest that energy from the "electromagnetic quantum vacuum."  The examiner allowed this patent on first action without even considering that this device might not work as claimed.

You might be able to spot some perpetual motion patents. Look for phrases like “zero-point energy,” or in the claims for “alternator and electric motor work in combination,” or “spring driven apparatus which, in essence, feeds upon itself,” or “all of the flux from a permanent magnet” (all???) in combination with “enable useful work,” or, a favorite, “A chamber with a partition which lets gas molecules flow one way and not the other.” Or maybe you can find your own.

Have fun!

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