State of Innovation

Patents and Innovation Economics

Nobel Prize Not Enough for Patent Critics

Thomas Hager’s book The Alchemy of Air, describes the pursuit to fix nitrogen.  A major limitation for food production is the ability to fix nitrogen.  Historically, the solution was the use of manure to provide fixed nitrogen for agriculture.  However, this required huge amounts of manure for very limited results.  Guano and other sources of natural nitrogen were found to be much more effective.  Soils treated with these sources of nitrogen often produced significantly higher returns than those treated with manure.

Sir William Crookes in an 1898 speech warned that the world could soon run out of these natural deposits fixed nitrogen.  If the world did not find a substitute source of fixed nitrogen, then millions of people would starve.  Today we would call this “Peak Nitrogen.”  A number of researchers took up the challenge.  One area of research was to use electric arcs to fix nitrogen.  Another area of research was cyanamide, which combines nitrogen with calcium carbide with a catalyst.

Fritz Haber invented the process of combining nitrogen and hydrogen under pressure and heat with a catalyst to produce ammonia.  The pressures necessary for this process, 100-200 atmospheres, were unheard of at the time.  Haber was only able to accomplish this by carving a chamber out of quartz.  The catalyst he found was osmium.  Naturally, on the eve of rolling out the production process, the patent for this process was challenged.  The challengers argued that Haber’s invention was nothing but a straightforward extrapolation of known applications.  No matter that no one had ever worked at these pressures before, no matter that no one had ever used osmium as a catalyst – it was a straightforward application.  Fritz Haber who invented the basic process and Carl Bosch who scaled up the process for commercial production both received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

This shows that critics of patents are not objective.  Even being awarded for a Nobel prize for your work is not enough for many critics of patents.  The Haber Bosch process was a combination of known elements.  Nothing in their process was unexpected in the sense that it violated any laws of physics or chemistry.  Note that the Supreme Court’s KSR opinion cast dispersions on inventions that are a “mere combination of known elements.”  It also suggested that only inventions where an element performed in an unexpected manner did it deserved a patent.  The Supreme Court and critics of the patent system have no idea what they are talking about.  All inventions are combinations of known elements.  The critics attack on patents is more about their biases than the validity of patents.


November 22, 2010 - Posted by | Innovation, Patents

1 Comment »

  1. This shows that critics of patents are not objective.

    Hey there DB,

    Glad to see you are educating yourself on Malthus and the Fritz-Haber (temporary) solution.

    Now when it comes to science literacy, to patent literacy and to Supreme Court decisions like KSR, Bilski (and heaven forbid the next irrational step back into Medieval-ism), you have to forgive them because, like any other group of lay people, they know not what they do.

    The long road and good fight that lays ahead for folk like us is to try and educate “them” about all the complex interconnections that allow our civilization to continue as is (at least in the short term) due to all the inventions and scientific achievements that have come thus far; and to also get “them” to understand that inventions and continuance of our non-negotiable way of life is not part of an “Automatic Earth”.

    It needs constant cultivation, constant vigilance, constant re-thinking.

    That is what a good patent system is all about. Without it, our nation probably will perish from this Earth and our general welfare will be demoted.

    Keep up the good fight. :-)

    Comment by step back | November 23, 2010 | Reply

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