Sun Power: Keeping it Green with New Energy Technologies

Today our week-long Earth Day 2013 series takes a look at solar power technologies. To accomplish this we look at a variety of patent applications, as well as an issued patent, all of which relate to solar energy technologies that have been released by the USPTO within the past month or so.

Solar energy is one of the alternative energy forms that many believe can be an effective part of the new alternative energy that replaces our current carbon-based fossil fuel situation. Electricity generation from solar radiation creates no air pollutants and poses a minimal intrusion on the environment. However, solar radiation can be inconsistent based on time of day or weather, and large surface areas must be used to collect enough solar energy to generate a meaningful amount of electricity.

Four recent patent applications published by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and featured here below give an interesting insight into the future of solar energy generation. In most of these applications, we can see solar cell panel technology being applied to individual devices and machines, collecting enough energy to charge a battery or at least reduce energy used from other sources. These patent applications describe cars, digital cameras, irrigation systems and even digital cameras with solar energy collection technology.

One solar technology patent awarded by the USPTO protects a photovoltaic energy collection kit that a homeowner could purchase and set up at a residence to provide solar energy generation for that building.


Solar Power in a Vehicle
U.S. Patent App. No. 20130092457

Increasingly, hybrid vehicles with multiple energy sources are entering the marketplace as car manufacturers try to reduce fossil fuel use. Biofuels like ethanol have replaced some gasoline use, and some cars run off electrical charges stored in the battery while plugged into an electrical socket. Although these alternative energy sources have lessened a vehicle’s dependence on gasoline, there’s no indication that these energy sources will replace gasoline entirely any day soon.

This patent application lays out a system of solar energy use that would help reduce gasoline use even further. Solar energy is collected by an apparatus installed on the roof of a car and then delivers the energy to the vehicle through a DC/DC converter to increase the electrical charge. The patent application was filed by Fisker Automotive, a manufacturer of high-concept cars utilizing alternative energies that is currently in court bankruptcy proceedings.

Claims 1 through 18 were cancelled, so the first claim of the application as published is claim 19, which reads as follows:

“A photovoltaic apparatus for a vehicle comprising: a plurality of solar modules electrically isolated from each other, wherein each solar module of the plurality of solar modules includes a plurality of solar cells for receiving solar radiation and converting the solar radiation to electrical energy, wherein each solar module of the plurality of solar modules is operated at its maximum power point; a plurality of converters, each electrically coupled to a corresponding solar module of the plurality of the solar modules, to receive the electrical energy from the corresponding solar module and convert the received electrical energy to an output voltage; and an energy storage device electrically in communication with each of the converters for storing the output voltage.”

Solar-Powered Hanging Plant Illuminator
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130094191

Plant illuminators are typically used in any situation where light must be introduced to a plant to maintain a healthy level of photosynthesis. Solar-powered illuminators already exist, but existing models have a few design drawbacks, especially those used for hanging plants. Some illuminators can create too much of a weight strain on the electrical system and cause an electrical cable or support structure to snap. Also, the illuminator and hanging pot must be bought as a single unit, increasing the consumer price and preventing gardeners from using their own hanging pots.

This patent application, filed by solo inventor Richard Cohen of Ann Arbor, MI, describes a solar-powered illumination unit that contains solar panels on the top of the housing that collect solar energy. This energy is converted into electricity that powers light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that light the plants hanging below. The assembly also contains a central structure that bears the weight of the plant, preventing undue stress on the housing that could crack it.

Claim 1 of this patent application seeks to protect:

“A solar-powered illuminator for hanging plants or other articles, comprising: a housing having an upper surface, a lower surface, and an interior; one or more solar panel disposed on the upper surface of the housing; one or more light emitters configured to provide downward illumination from the lower surface of the housing; one or more rechargeable batteries disposed within the housing; electronic control circuitry disposed within the housing operative to charge the batteries using energy from the solar panel(s) and activate the light emitters using energy from the batteries; an upper connector disposed at or above the upper surface of the housing; a lower connector disposed at or below the lower surface of the housing; and a central member oriented vertically through the housing, the member having an upper end coupled to the upper connector and a lower end coupled to the lower connector whereby, when the housing is suspended using the upper connector and a load in the form of a hanging plant is suspended from the lower connector, the weight of the load carried by the central member as opposed to the housing.”

Method and System for Orienting Solar Powered Irrigation Systems
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130087640

Central pivot irrigation systems are commonly used to water crops. In these systems, a water distribution line is supported in the air by a series of towers, which pivot across a field. Pressurized water leaves the water line through sprinklers. With traditional electric models, long power transmission devices and many yards of cables must be used, driving up the costs of making and running the machine.

Central pivot irrigation systems which run on solar power already exist, but this patent application, filed by agricultural and landscape irrigation systems developer Lindsay Corporation, improves on prior designs. Previous solar-powered systems adjusted the solar cells’ positioning to maximize solar energy collection based on the position of the sun. In this system, the cells are installed directly on the mobile towers, reducing the solar energy collected but more than making up for it by reducing energy consumed to rotate the solar cells.

As Claim 1 of this patent application states, Lindsay Corporation wants to protect:

“An irrigation system comprising: a central pivot; a main section pivotally connected to the central pivot; at least one solar panel supported on the main section; and a control system for positioning the main section relative to the central pivot so that the solar panel faces the sun.”

Solar Powered Camera
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130083238

Solar cell technology has developed to the point where it can be applied to electronic devices, but there are some design flaws that can pose issues. Many devices, like digital cameras, may be too small to house effective solar cell panels. Solar panels can be enlarged, but may become cumbersome to users as a component of the device.

This patent application, filed by Alex Glynn of Orlando, FL, and assigned to the company Glynntech, features an attachable solar panel system for powering a digital camera. The solar panel slides into place on top of the camera and is held by a locking mechanism that rotates, allowing the panel to be positioned in any direction to catch the most sunlight. Solar energy collected by the panel could be stored within the device for later use.

Claim one of this intellectual property patent application describes:

“A solar powered camera, comprising: a) a digital camera main housing; b) digital camera internal mechanisms, including imaging and storage processors located within said main housing, imaging and storage controls, and a lens connected to said imaging processor and located on said main housing; c) a rechargeable power storage unit connected to said digital camera internal mechanisms; and, d) at least one solar cell panel connected to said rechargeable power storage unit and movably connected to said main housing, said at least one solar cell panel having a first position, being a closed position, and having a second position, being an open position; wherein said at least one solar cell panel is movable from said first position to said second position for solar recharging of said rechargeable power storage unit, and is movable from said second position to said first position for storage.”

Solar Power Structure and Kit for Making the Same
U.S. Patent No. 8402704

Photovoltaic panels are one technology used to collect solar energy and convert into electricity which can be used in residential or commercial applications to power a building. Recent technological advances in photovoltaic technology have reduced the cost of manufacturing, making products cheaper and more widely available to the general public.

This legal patent protects a kit created by solar technology developer Phat Energy Corporation of La Crescenta, CA, for a photovoltaic energy collection system. The kit contains all the basic parts of a photovoltaic panel energy collection system, including framing and connecting joints, that is designed to be easily assembled. It’s also designed to be aesthetically pleasing and serve as an outdoor carport or awning of sorts.

As Claim 1 describes, Phat Energy Corporation has earned the right to protect:

“A free-standing solar power structure, comprising: a plurality of PV panels; a frame for supporting the plurality of PV panels; a plurality of support columns coupled to and extending beneath the frame; a water-resistant sub-assembly mounted to the frame; and the water-resistant sub-assembly is configured to secure the plurality of PV panels, expose for viewing from below the frame a portion of each PV panel bottom surface, and direct water away from the plurality of PV panels and the frame; wherein the water-resistant sub-assembly includes a flashing collar, formed flashing, a gutter; and the flashing collar, the formed flashing, and the gutter are configured to divert water away from the plurality of PV panels and the frame.”


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