An invention to make lithium-ion batteries safer if they catch fire has gained a patent, thanks to Wayne State University Law School’s Patent Procurement Clinic.
Wayne Law’s patent clinic is the only one of its kind in Michigan and one of only about 25 in the nation officially affiliated with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The clinic is part of the law school’s Program for Entrepreneurship and Business Law, which offers free legal services to qualified startups, nonprofits and inventors.
Entrepreneurs Gerry Flood of Birmingham and Ron Butler of Detroit, owners of LithSafe (formerly LithFire-X), first heard about the clinic’s services through Detroit’s TechTown, a nonprofit business accelerator started by and affiliated with Wayne State University. The men were in the process of developing their business when they contacted the clinic. Their invention, a method of fire suppression for lithium-ion batteries, needed patent protection.
The law students working at the patent clinic liked what they heard about LithSafe’s business idea and went to work, starting with a client meeting in January 2013, followed by a comprehensive patentability search. LithSafe’s patent application, written by then-student Daniel Samwel, was filed by the clinic in May 2013. Samwel graduated later that year and now is employed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Flood and Butler have developed a network of tubing for fire suppression that connects to the front of lithium-ion battery packs in hybrid and electric vehicles. Butler is a retired firefighter and Flood has a background in insurance, alternative fuels, management and fire suppression systems. The inventors know the built-in problem that comes with lithium-ion batteries. If they catch fire, even after the flame is extinguished, chemical reactions inside the battery continue, creating the potential for an explosive incident, Flood said.
“What we’ve developed, and now patented, not only puts the fire out, it cools the battery,” Flood said.
Said Butler: “The intellectual property protection we’ve secured is essential to our product offerings. We are eternally grateful to WSU and are willing to go overboard with our praise. Many organizations talk a good game relative to helping small businesses boot up. This program represents the epitome of business incubation. We look forward to the next opportunity to secure a patent.”
Wayne Law’s patent law students work under the supervision of experienced patent attorneys, including Thomas Helmholdt, the adjunct professor and full-time patent attorney who teaches the clinic.
“It was just fantastic,” Flood said. “It got us all set. The work was beautiful. We only had to pay for the drawings and filing fee, and they did all the work.”
Helmholdt estimates that the clinic’s work on LithSafe’s patent saved the client about $10,000. And that means that a new business is better poised to contribute to the economic revival of Detroit.
“Supporting our community is an integral part of Wayne Law’s mission,” said Assistant (Clinical) Professor Eric Williams, director of the Program for Entrepreneurship and Business Law. “Our location in Detroit and our role as a public institution and resource give the clinic the potential to support urban entrepreneurship and community development in a meaningful way. These kinds of projects are invaluable to students who want to learn how to really practice. And, at the same time, they support development in Detroit.”
LithSafe has some corporate customers already and has begun trainings about lithium-ion fires and the dangers involved. And its owners see much more business ahead.
“Our initial move into the battery fire management sector had us dealing mostly with facility safety,” Butler said. “Per the request of our customers, we have developed fire suppression and containment interventions for mobile applications (such as battery transport and electric vehicle recovery) as well as stationary applications (such as fixed energy storage and physical battery storage). The patent is one of many we need to pursue as our technologies and methodologies are gaining strong traction in the international marketplace.”