Why teenage girl's smartphone battery breakthrough may never see daylight

Solaroad CEO threatens patent suit if 18-year-old California student tries to commercialize her research on supercapacitors

EDITOR’S NOTE: After this article first appeared, readers questioned why they had trouble finding the patents relating to the issue. In his first conversation with Network World on May 23, SolaRoad Technologies CEO Kahrl Retti said he had filed the patents in 2005 and emailed a copy of the relevant patent application, which made several references to his nanocapacitor technology that Retti believes is related to Eesha Khare’s research.

Yesterday, Retti reached out to Network World and clarified that the provisional applications for his patents were filed in August of 2005, which “is recognized as the date of first disclosure of the invention.” A non-provisional application was filed in 2006, and his patents reached “final examination” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2011. This five-year wait was a result of “the massive backlog at the PTO,” Retti says.

Shortly after that examination, Retti says a “patent office action” required him to abandon the original application and re-file after dividing the application into six different groups of claims to avoid “extremely high fees.” Even so, the “date of recording the invention is still the same since all applications relate to an office action.”

“We have re-filed the claims as required by the USPTO. These applications are not searchable until after the application publication number is issued. Only then can the app [sic] be searched in the USPTO data base,” Retti explained in an email to Network World.

Retti says his application remains in patent pending status, which grants him “the ability to file an interference suit, but does not allow an infringement suit until after the claims are allowed.”

Eesha Khare, an 18-year-old senior at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif., won both the first prize at the Intel Science Fair and the Project of the Year award for the senior division of the California State Science Fair with her research on supercapacitors.

However, her work has also attracted the attention of the company that has filed a patent involving similar technology, and its CEO says he may be forced to bring legal action against her if she tries to commercialize it.

Khare’s work on supercapacitors, specifically the creation of a nanorod electrode capacitor with the ability to achieve the energy density of a supercapacitor, could help manufacturers make proper use of flexible displays for smartphones, according to Tech News World.

[ALSO: Flexible display smartphones just a 'novelty' ... for now]

[History of flexible displays]

Specifically, Khare’s work with supercapacitors could make a difference in the design and performance of smartphone batteries, which, in turn, could help make flexible smartphones a reality. According to Tech News World, Khare’s design involved a hydrogenated titanium dioxide core, which, when combined with its polyaniline shell, increases both capacitance and density, essentially meaning the battery could create more energy and store it for longer. In a test, Khare’s supercapacitor boasted a capacitance of 238.5 Farads per gram, a substantial improvement from the 80 Farads per gram achieved with alternative designs.

Practically, supercapacitors could help make for smaller internal components in smartphones.

"Perhaps instead of two batteries or cells, you might have a single battery or cell with something like this capacitor to recharge the battery,” Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research, told Tech News World.

In addition to Intel, Google has already been in touch with Khare regarding her work with supercapacitors. Although she has yet to follow up with Google’s inquiry, Khare told Tech News World that her initial goal was to apply her research to a commercial idea.

But aside from the developmental barriers – experts warned Tech News World about issues with sustained power and risks of explosion – Khare’s work violates a 2005 patent filed by green energy company Solaroad Technologies, according to company CEO Kahrl Retti. He says he has been working on similar technology since the 1980s, and that while Khare’s work is impressive, it is in violation of the patents involving nanocapacitor technology that Solaroad Technologies has already commercialized.

Among other products, Solaroad sells green energy solutions optimized for electric cars, including the use of solar power to recharge electric car batteries. The company is also in the process of designing its own electric car.

Retti says the main issue is that academic institutions often support technological research without first checking to see if the work may violate patents protecting others’ intellectual property. Making matters worse is the visibility that academia receive for these projects, which undermines the efforts of private sector companies or inventors who have been vying for the same publicity, and subsequent funding, for years.

“I would never consciously hurt or cast aspersions on anybody. I just simply wanted to put somebody on notice that we already developed this technology,” Retti said in a phone interview with Network World. “I don’t want to hurt this girl’s feelings or anybody else’s. I’m just frustrated after trying to get Intel or Google to talk to us for decades, and they won’t even talk to me, but they’re jumping on this bandwagon.”

Indeed, Khare’s research project isn’t the first to infringe upon Solaroad’s; Retti says he has encountered this issue “about a dozen times.” And he says academic projects like these raise concerns with investors, making it all the more difficult to raise capital.

Retti says he’d like to get to a point where academia and private businesses collaborate. But if any separate companies invest in Khare’s project, he says he would have to take legal action.

I don’t want to pee on anyone’s parade and I don’t want to stop any technology that could be for the greater good of the world, but I’m here to say that I did it.

— Kahrl Retti

“I don’t want to pee on anyone’s parade and I don’t want to stop any technology that could be for the greater good of the world, but I’m here to say that I did it,” Retti says.

“I don’t want to have to bring legal action against her,” he added. “But if she raises capital, I’ll have to stop her.”

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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