By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
This is a case for patent-dependent Nasdaq hopefuls and their investors to watch.
Mills, a Harvard-trained medical doctor and founder of the New Jersey-based technology start-up BlackLight Power Inc., was awarded a U.S. patent February 15 covering his claim to producing energy by shrinking the electron orbit of hydrogen below what most quantum theorists have thought possible for a century. He calls the smaller hydrogen atom a "hydrino" and theorizes it could lead to a nearly limitless supply of clean, cheap power [see "Quantum Leap" and "Doctor Molecool"].
The news outraged Mills's fiercest critic, Dr. Robert Park, an APS spokesman and avid debunker based in Washington, D.C. Park mocked the patent decision in the press and in his What's New column at aps.org. The column comes with a disclaimer that states, "Opinions are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the APS, but they should be."
Within days, the patent office pulled back a related chemistry patent for further review just before issuance, citing comments by Park and othersnone of whom has tested Mills's devices or materialsin mainstream press reports that Mills must be either wildly mistaken or a fraud. That patent application, number 09/009,294, was so near issuance that it slipped out in the PTO's weekly Gazette of allowances as Patent No. 6,030,601.
Mills says Park may have more than the safeguarding of science at heart. "Park's group is lobbying the government to give them billions of dollars for 'big science' projects that BlackLight's success would make obsolete. He's a competitor," says Mills, who is privately funded. "I know it's not completely analogous, but going to him would be like the patent office going to Bill Gates and asking, 'Do you think Apple's new operating platform will work?' "
With the novel hydrino chemistry, Mills says he's developed and had outside testing of the prototype for what could be a vastly superior class of batteries. He also claims to have developed compounds for plastic magnetic storage media and rustproof coatings, also with many independent lab verifications.
Mills's lawyers won an agreement from the patent office not to act on the chemistry application until June while the U.S. District Court examines the case. Meanwhile, Mills continues to take a beating at the agency, which took his artificial-intelligence patent application away from an examiner who'd been reviewing it for over a year and placed it in the hands of another, who quickly rejected it. The office also rejected his patent application for a hydrino power plant. Mills says he'll contest both decisions.
The 69-year-old Park and 42-year-old Mills have never met, but Park has blasted Mills since he proposed his theory nine years ago. In March, Mills's lawyers warned Park and three other scientists to refrain from calling him a fraud, even if they continue to denounce his theories. "Scientific debate is sacredno one wants to silence that," Mills says. "But when you try to incriminate a business, you've crossed the line. Still, in a way I'm glad about this. It forces the issue. Now we'll have to put up or shut up, and they'll have to confront the data or fold." Mills says he's going to back up his filings with the patent office with more than 40 reports and publications, and he may request that the National Institute of Science and Technology test his prototype technologies.
Park says he doesn't know where Mills is on what he calls "the road from foolishness to fraud," because "the human capacity for self-deception should never be underestimated." Of course, he offers, even with a crank theory "there's room for serendipity, but I wouldn't bet on it."
Threats to the hydrino patents could jeopardize Morgan Stanley Dean Witter's plans to underwrite BlackLight's estimated billion dollar initial public offering. And some of BlackLight's backers say they're offended when portrayed as dupes or coconspirators.
"If I wanted to gamble, I'd fly to Vegas," says Rick Barry, whose Eastbourne Capital Management and its principals invested $5 million in BlackLight after what he describes as "detailed" due dilligence by him and PacifiCorp. "I don't think the risk [with Mills] is science fraud. It's can he engineer a device and can he protect his intellectual property? I thought we were safe on the latter until this started to unfold."
Along with PacifiCorp, electric utility Conectiv has invested in BlackLight. Tyco International inherited a sliver stake in the company through its purchase of Amp Incorporated, a leading producer of electrical connectors. Individual backers are among the Who's Who of the business establishment. They include a former chairman of Morgan Stanley and a former president of PaineWebber. Board members include Dr. Shelby Brewer, a former top Department of Energy nuclear official, and Aris Melissaratos, former director of Westinghouse's Science and Technology Center.
So while BlackLight doesn't have the resources of the entire physics establishment, it has more pull than most start-ups. Its travails at the patent office have even attracted attention on Capitol Hill.