Patent Issue Halts Climate Control Experiments
May 17, 2012

Patent Issue Halts Climate Control Experiments

Fighting over patents may seem silly when phone or computer manufacturers are involved. After all, no normal person knows how computers connect to a network or how photos are shared over the internet.

However, normal people can and do feel the effects of global warming, like the rash of weird weather we´ve had in the past few years. Therefore, it´s a bit frustrating and surprising that something as seemingly insignificant as patents have curbed a UK climate experiment to try and slow the effects of global warming.

According to Reuters, British scientists have had to abandon their experiment to spray particles into the upper atmosphere to cool the Earth due to “concerns over a patent for some of the technology.”

The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project is backed by researchers and scientists from Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford Universities and will cost around $2.5 million.

The test involves pumping water through a 1 kilometer hose to an air balloon to study the effects of wind on the design before ramping up to a full scale project, which would pump sulphates and aerosol particles through a 20 kilometer hose into a much larger air balloon.

These sulphate and aerosol particles would be used to mimic the cooling effect produced by ash from large volcanic eruptions, which reflect the earth´s sunlight before it reaches land.

The patent in question was submitted by Peter Davidson, head of UK consulting firm Davidson Technology – an adviser at the workshop where the SPICE project was conceived - and Hugh Hunt, an engineer at the University of Cambridge and one of SPICE´s project investigators.

The patent covers an “apparatus for transporting and dispersing solid particles into the Earth´s stratosphere,” by using a “balloon, dirigible or airship.”

Davidson and Hunt´s patent application was submitted before the SPICE proposal and according to Matthew Watson, principal investigator of SPICE and an Earth scientist at the University of Bristol, it presents “a potentially significant conflict of interest,” according to

UK funding agencies require anyone applying for grants to declare upfront any potential conflicts of interest.

“The details of this application were only reported to the project team a year into the project and caused many members, including me, significant discomfort,” said Watson. “Information regarding the patent application was immediately reported to the research councils, who have initiated an external investigation.”

For his part, Davidson insists he told the project's main funder, the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) about this potential conflict of interest.

In the light of this conflict of interest involving patents, the field-trial part of the SPICE project has been abandoned.

In an email statement to Nature, Watson has said, “It is with some regret that today the SPICE team has announced we´ve decided to call off the outdoor ℠1 km testbed´ experiment that was scheduled for later this year.”

However, while the testing has been halted, other parts of the experiment will continue, including climate modeling and analysis of which particles would be best to shoot into the air, as well as different delivery methods. Watson has said, however, that these kinds of engineering projects will often seek to protect their intellectual property.

“The issue here is that in climate science there is a mistrust of IP, and I understand that now,” he says. “We´re not expecting any revenue from any of the IP, but if there is any it will go into a trust fund supporting climate-change-related charities.”