The European Inventor Award 2017

Word Cloud © FIZ Karlsruhe

“There is nothing new. Everything that can be invented, has been invented”, stated Charles H. Duell, United States Commissioner of Patents, in 1899. If Duell had been right, this would basically have made his workplace, the US patent office, obsolete. Luckily, he was wrong. People have remained innovative; their will to do research and strive for technical improvements is still unbroken.  This innovative power is reflected by the number of patents filed each year all around the globe. They continuously provide the patent offices with fresh work, as the chart of patents filed with the European Patent Office (EPO) (fig. 1 below) impressively shows.1

 

 

Fig. 1: Patents filed with the EPO from 2007 to 2016, © FIZ Karlsruhe
Fig. 1: Patents filed with the EPO from 2007 to 2016, © FIZ Karlsruhe

Each year, the European Patent Office honors some of these innovative highlights with the European Inventor Award2. The award goes to inventors whose innovative solutions facilitate our everyday lives. The award ceremony, which attracts a lot of media attention, also serves to present these inventions or products to a wider audience and to move the inventors themselves from the seclusion of their research institutions into the spotlight. An independent jury evaluates the innovations that have been filed for patent in the categories industry, research, non-EPO countries3, small and medium-sized enterprises, and lifetime achievement. A decisive factor is whether the invention promotes technical and social progress, secures prosperity in Europe, and creates new jobs. Three inventors per category are nominated, the so-called finalists. This year, the winners in the respective categories will be announced in Venice on June 15.


The finalist

As an example, we will present one of the finalists in the category “small and medium-sized enterprises”, Günther Hufschmid. He is one of this year’s finalists in this category. It was a mere accident that started the story of his invention, but the invention itself is the result of a closer look on what had happened. Günther Hufschmid is a chemist and director of a medium-sized enterprise in Elsteraue in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany. His company Deurex is specialized in the production of waxes for paints and coatings. In 2010, a mistake with far-reaching consequences was made. A worker had inadvertently mixed up the values for pressure and temperature and entered the wrong parameters into the production machine. The machine ran overnight with the wrong settings and by the next morning had produced ten tons of a fluffy, fibrous substance that had spread all over the workshop. Günther Hufschmid was shocked and started to search for the error, but was considerate enough not to dispose of the fluffy product right away.


PURE, the supersponge

Fig. 2: Close-up of PURE, the oil-adsorbent material, © Deurex AG
Fig. 2: Close-up of PURE, the oil-adsorbent material, © Deurex AG

At about the same time there was a serious accident on the oil-drilling platform Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. The images of the disastrous contamination of the ocean by spilt oil went around the globe. And it was precisely those images that triggered an idea in Günther Hufschmid. He wanted to know whether the erroneously produced fluffy substance could adsorb oil. And, indeed, the voluminous material had precisely this property: it soaked the oil up like a sponge. One kilogram of this fluffy material can adsorb six liters of oil, i.e. about one third more than a conventional adsorbent. In the meantime, Günther Hufschmid has had his invention patented4 and his company sells the product under the name DEUREX PURE. Besides its excellent adsorbent properties, PURE has another advantage: it is water-repellent and floats on the surface of the water so that it can be easily retrieved once it has finished its cleaning job. The oil is then simply removed from PURE which is then ready for the next cleanup. PURE is already employed to clean waters. It is also used in windmills to prevent the turbine’s lubrication oil from mixing with rain water. For the future, Günther Hufschmid plans to build a floating manufacturing plant to ensure that PURE can be produced exactly where it is needed, e.g., aboard a ship.


Innovation is a complex procedure

Günther Hufschmid’s example shows that innovation does not necessarily have to follow a straight path. It is the result of a complex procedure that may sometimes also involve a good deal of luck. It also requires sang-froid and the willingness to take risks: Günther Hufschmid had decided to keep the defective product for the time being, while others would have gotten rid of it immediately. He had been ready to think out of the box and taken an interest in other issues besides his main occupation, the production of waxes. The occasion of the Deepwater Horizon disaster made him wonder how the consequences of an oil disaster could be efficiently cured. Finally, he mentally combined two aspects that at first sight did not seem to have much in common: the fluffy material that had been produced by accident, and the oil disaster. He had the fluffy product tested for its oil-adsorbent properties and thus demonstrated courage to try something new, despite the risk that his idea might fail. And this is precisely what the European Inventor Award is supposed to honor: a culture of thought that also has room for failure.


German original text and research

Dr. Babett Bolle

 

 

Footnotes
1 www.epo.org/about-us/annual-reports-statistics/annual-report/2016/download-centre_de.html (last checked on May 31, 2017).
2 The Inventor Award has been existing since 2006; until 2009 it was called European Inventor of the Year Award.
3 Non-EPO countries are countries outside the European Union.
4 DE102010022437.