There is no master recipe for a patent, but if there was, it would contain one essential ingredient: a problem to solve. And while the path from that point forward is as unique as the inventor and the technology, there are key characteristics that contribute to success. The patent issued for our Advanced Particle Removal Technology (APART), an innovative application that redefines electrostatic precipitators, illustrates the long yet gratifying journey from identifying the problem to developing a patent-worthy solution.
Deep expertise isn’t always required, but in advanced technology there is no shortcut around knowledge and experience. With an education that includes PhD. and Doctor of Science degrees, and 40 years of experience in the field, Agentis Air Director of Research and Development Igor Krichtafovitch has focused his life’s work on innovation: first for the aerospace industry, and later for high-voltage power supply industries, where large-scale electrostatic precipitators (ESP) were used to combat particulate air pollution. This experience in pollution control opened his eyes to the problems inherent in the outdated ESP technology: low efficiency and high power consumption. Seeing those issues presented Krichtafovitch with the first step on the path to a patented technology: a problem to solve.
A dog with a bone attitude toward problem solving is critical. Focus. Single-mindedness. Whatever you call it, it’s what wakes you up at three am. For Dr. Krichtafovitch, the problem was multi-faceted: how to reinvent ESP technology for indoor use to capture and retain fine and ultra-fine particles more effectively while also making it maintenance-free (and disposable); energy efficient; and economical. With the problem defined, Dr. Krichtafovitch began work on improving a technology that had been in use for over 75 years.
Open-minded imagination and inquisitiveness help a lot. Traditional metal electrodes, which collect the charged pollution particles, are highly conductive but not especially retentive. Krichtafovitch thought, ‘Why not make the electrodes using something porous to absorb and retain particles?’
So began a global search for a material to satisfy contradictory requirements:
First, it should have a porous, open-cell structure to permanently hold a large amount of dust. Second, it should not impede the particle attraction of the conductive core. Third, it should be non-flammable. Fourth, the material should be readily available and affordable.
Over two years, dozens of samples were found, tested, and rejected. Finally, he came upon an unusual, promising material from Japan that was open cell, non-flammable, and easy to work with. Upon sharing his exciting discovery with his wife, she told him it wasn’t so exotic after all, and was the same material as her common melamine kitchen sponge.
With perfect material in hand, the future was looking bright, but there was still another problem to solve: the heavy metal plate electrodes used in traditional ESP technology were not disposable. So, he asked, ‘Could an ultra-thin metal, sandwiched between the foam, function as the necessary conductive core? Excited about this idea, he immediately began to build a prototype, and testing showed excellent particle collection and retention. A patent search confirmed that the idea was original, and a new technology was born.
Eureka? Not quite. The sandwich electrode was effective and conductive; lightweight, inexpensive, and disposable, but it lacked the rigidity needed for practical application. Instead it wobbled. It wiggled. It flopped. More years passed, with more ideas, followed by more prototypes. The solution remained elusive.
To Krichtafovitch, responsible for over 100 patents in his career, each failure “is a step in the right direction, as it clarifies the path to progress.”
Motivated by what he calls “creative stress,” one afternoon Krichtafovitch decided to place a rigid frame around the edge of each electrode, and the flop, wiggle, and wobble disappeared. The solution—simply elegant and deceptively simple—“cost me a lot of sleepless nights.”
A network of supporters is invaluable to an inventor, especially when progress is erratic, and frustration mounts. Agentis Air CEO Norm Long spurred Krichtafovitch to think inventively about a cost-effective design. Academic colleagues and The University of Washington CoMotion Innovation Hub appreciated the technology’s potential and supported his research. As did other inventors turned investors, their confidence built upon Krichtafovitch’s past successes. And family support was invaluable.
“There will always be people who will tell you why it won’t work. Extract anything and everything constructive from their criticism but don’t be derailed by negativity. Instead surround yourself with people who want your success as much as you do,” says Krichtafovitch.
Knowing a Eureka moment when it arrives. Or not. Sometimes Eureka moments are missed. Other times they are only a piece of the solution. This is where the dog-with-a-bone determination kicks in.
Solving the electrode rigidity problem was progress, but to reduce handling and maintenance, all of the disposable, collecting electrodes should be easily removed and replaced as a group. And for proper operation, the collecting electrodes needed to remain parallel once installed. Several months and a dozen prototypes later, Krichtafovitch hit on a winning design that kept the unit parallel and rigid, and easy to insert or remove.
At long last, Eureka: A new kind of electrostatic precipitator technology that solves the problems of traditional ESP—increasing particle retention effectiveness, eliminating maintenance, and improving energy efficiency.
Agentis Air Director of Research and Development Igor Krichtafovitch
“At the time, you aren’t thinking about the patent, you are just thinking about the problem. It’s like a puzzle. You know all of the pieces are there, you just need the patience to work through it.”
Prototype Design for Disposable Electrostatic Precipitator Cartridge
“People often think a Eureka moment is an instantaneous moment like lightning strike,” says Krichtafovitch. “In fact, it is a laborious path, and Eureka moments come after working on the problem day in and day out. As Isaac Newton said: ‘Genius is Patience.’ “