Thursday, February 01, 2007

Is Patent Pooling For Carbon Nanotubes Inevitable?

Nanotech-related patent applications have grown by an average 20 percent over the past few years, compared with just 2 percent average growth in general applications. As of late March 2005, 3,818 U.S. nanotechnology patents had been issued with another 1,777 patent applications awaiting examination.

Governments, corporations and venture capitalists spent more than $8.6 billion worldwide on nanotechnology research and development in 2004. Established corporations spent more than $3.8 billion globally on nanotechnology R&D in the same year.

Approximately 1,500 total companies worldwide have announced nanotechnology R&D plans. Eighty percent of them -- approximately 1,200 -- are start-ups, 670 of which are in the U.S.

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are currently considered the most promising nanomaterials discovered so far, due to their amazing mechanical properties and high tensile strength. Depending on their structure, they can be metals or semiconductors.

Single-wall nanotubes (SWNTs) are a variant of carbon nanotubes that exhibit electrical properties that are not shared by the multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWNT). SWNTs are considered the most likely candidate for miniaturizing electronics toward the nanoscale. Because of their enormous commercial potential, universities, start-ups, and corporations have aggressively sought patent protection on nanotube-based products.

The biggest problem facing carbon nanotubes right now, according to this article from Nanonwerk, is that the patent landscape is an utter mess. This is making life very difficult for manufacturers of CNT-based products who do not want to rely on external suppliers for their CNTs. And the patent problem is spread through all stages of in-house CNT synthesis: the growth technique (based on arc discharge, laser ablation, or chemical vapor deposition methods); the CNT processing tools (for purification, sorting, doping, functionalizing, coating, etc.); and the manipulation techniques for final deposition on or integration with the product.

CNT "building block" patents are a primary concern, as such patents fundamentally cover nanotubes, nanotube-based products, and methods of making nanotubes and nanotube-based products.

  • "Basic building block" patents are fundamental patents claiming nanotube compositions of matter, general techniques for synthesizing nanotubes, and widely used tools for altering and manipulating nanotubes. Basic building block patents are likely to be infringed across a variety of different industries.
  • "Applied building block" patents claim specific products based on carbon nanotubes and specific methods for manufacturing those products. Applied building block patents are only relevant to a select number of firms in specific industries."

A recent report from June 2006 showed that 446 carbon nanotube patents having 8,557 claims, of which 420 claims are directed to "building block type claims, have already been issued in the U.S. Nanowerk's search on the U.S. Patent Office's website showed that as of January 30, 2007, there are 543 patents with the term "carbon nanotube" included in the abstract and 2,415 patents with this term included in the patent specification.

Needless to say, the call for patent pooling on "building block" CNT's is reaching critical mass. Currently, a "Nanotube Patent Forum" is being proposed to bring together patent holders of such CNT technology. The forum is currently open to anyone, but is specifically focused on getting support from key patent holders such as IBM, NEC, Hyperion, Intel, Rice University, GE, Carbon Nanotechnologies, Nantero, Unidym, and Stanford University.

For more information, see Nanowerk article: "Growing nanotechnology problems: navigating the patent labyrinth"

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