An interesting story in Thursday's Houston Chronicle about a scientist's decades long wait to patent an invention. There are no details of the exact bureaucratic snarl that held up the application for so long. But I suspect that the back and forth between the physicist and the patent office may have resembled Narayan's experience with Aetna when he applied for Medicare supplemental insurance.
Roy Weinstein had given up.
To heck with the patent office, the 82-year-old physicist decided. After waiting two decades for a patent on his potentially revolutionary superconducting magnets, he'd had enough.
“As you might imagine, waiting 20 years is a pretty nasty chore,” said Weinstein, an emeritus professor at the University of Houston.
Then, amazingly, the patent arrived on Feb. 23 — 20 years and three days after he applied for it. The breakthrough came after the intervention of his son, Lee, an engineer and inventor who has had his own battles with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The patent lets Weinstein move forward with commercial development of his supermagnets that, when chilled to super-low temperatures, can produce a field with the strength of 2 tesla, billions of times stronger than the magnet on your refrigerator.
Weinstein's magnets are about the size of a stack of five dimes, weigh an ounce, and cost $300. Commercially available electromagnets that can produce a comparable magnetic field weigh two tons and cost $60,000 to $100,000, he says.
The most immediate application may be in motors, which use magnets to create motion. The stronger the magnet, the more powerful the motor. Although the magnets would have to be kept cool with liquid nitrogen, this would be cost-effective in larger motors, Weinstein said.
The prospect of a more powerful, much smaller magnet has experts excited.
“The basic design of motors has been understood for about a century,” said Robert Hebner, director of the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas at Austin.
“It's new materials that make it exciting, and it seems to me this is a material that has the potential to revolutionize motors.”
Weinstein said he is developing a $7 million agreement with Round Rock-based TECO-Westinghouse Motor Co. to construct a 1 megawatt motor that will be a prototype for a 10 megawatt version. The company declined comment.
The U.S. Navy is expected to provide much of the funding, Weinstein said, because of the potential to reduce the size of ship-borne motors by three-fourths.
“On a Navy ship that extra space is pure gold,” the physicist said.
And there are other potential applications, a gusher of which Weinstein expects to flow now that the patent has been approved.