Overview

The Ovshinsky effect

Read time 13min 00sec

The name Stanford Ovshinsky is not likely to ring a bell. It isn't one like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates that's instantly recognisable and glides off the tongue. He is someone who never got a university degree and isn't rolling in piles of money. But he has done more than many better-known figures to advance the field of computing - and at 89, has no plans of quitting.

This marks the fourth and final feature in our series looking at the unsung heroes of the technology world, and the impact they have had on society, whether it's recognised or not.

So who is Stanford Ovshinsky? Well, for one, the inventor of an entirely new field of materials, the existence of which scientists used to think was impossible. He's also responsible for the technology used in almost all portable electronics, re-writable CDs and DVDs, flat-panel displays and hybrid cars. He has around 400 patents in areas of clean energy, battery technology and non-volatile memory, many of which are being developed through deals with Intel, Samsung, General Electric, and STMicroelectronics. He's been called “the modern world's most important energy visionary”, the father of phase-change technology and even the Thomas Edison of our age. Yet, few will recognise the upbeat octogenarian or the role he's played in shaping the energy and IT industries of the 20th century. This is largely because he lacks a quality coveted in today's consumer society: a flair for making large amounts of money. For Stanford Ovshinsky, working solutions have always trumped big profits.

Born 24 November 1922, in Akron, Ohio - now one of the US's hi-tech hotspots - Ovshinsky was the eldest son of working-class Jewish immigrants who had fled eastern Europe in 1905. His father, Benjamin Ovshinsky, made a living collecting scrap metal from nearby factories, and instilled in his son a deep sense of social justice. He was an activist and member of a group focused on labour rights and civil liberties, and Stanford Ovshinsky quickly developed a similar concern for bettering the lives of workers, as well as advancing the interests of industry - objectives he would pursue throughout his life.

After completing high school in 1941, Ovshinsky went to trade school and qualified as a machinist, starting work straight away in local machine shops. His inventive mind and knack for machinery quickly became apparent, and after some tinkering he created an automated lathe called the Benjamin Centre Drive, named after his father. It was later used to manufacture artillery shells for the Korean War because it could do the job 10 times faster than any other machine.

While Ovshinsky didn't attend university, his keen intelligence and voracious appetite for books made him an autodidact on several topics, including neurophysiology and cybernetics. It also meant his thinking wasn't limited by the strict divisions between disciplines common in academia, and his mind roamed across fields of physics, chemistry and mechanics. In this way, while working as the research director for a car parts manufacturer in the early 1950s, he began looking at creating a mechanical nerve cell, in an attempt to mimic the learning ability of the brain. With the help of his brother Herb, Ovshinsky built a model of the cell, using extremely thin layers of glassy materials, and called it the Ovitron. He patented the device in 1959, and in developing it made one of the defining discoveries of his career.

A new phase

Like many revolutionary scientific advances, Ovshinsky's idea seemed unbelievable at first. His work on the Ovitron led him to theorise that glass and related materials (known as amorphous or disordered materials) could potentially be used as semiconductors. At the time, scientists scoffed at this because it was thought only crystalline materials could act as conductors - these materials are structured in ordered lattices through which current can flow in a predictable, controlled way. Materials like glass, however, have more disordered arrangements, so it was assumed electrons would be too scattered to be able to join up and move in a steady flow needed for current. But Ovshinsky believed that if you could get those materials to change form, from amorphous to crystalline and back again, by putting a certain amount of voltage through them, for example, they could indeed act as semiconductors. Thousands of experiments later, his theory proved correct, and the 'Ovshinsky effect' was born. The discovery meant cheaper materials could be used to create conductors for computing devices, and paved the way for more affordable energy applications.

This new field of amorphous materials was called Ovonics, and made possible a new type of computer memory. The dominant form at the time, dynamic random access memory (DRAM), was problematic because chips lost their data when the power was switched off. Phase-change memory, however, registers data by changing the physical properties of the semiconductor material, a change that remains in effect even without electric current. It's this technology that ensures a cellphone's contact list remains intact even when the battery dies, and it allows for new data to be written on disk without first deleting old data - ushering in the rise of rewritable CDs and DVDs.

Don't pigeonhole people but bring out the best in them, where you're the leader only by example.

Stanford Ovshinsky

Many of these ideas and inventions went completely against the scientific thinking of the time. This, coupled with Ovshinsky's lack of academic credentials, meant his paper on Ovonics was initially greeted with extreme scepticism. As a 1970 article in 'Science and Mechanics' describes, Ovshinsky's claim started a “red-hot tussle” among scientists, with one side arguing he had hit on “something big enough to create a second transistor revolution leading to the dreamed-of flat-screen TV and a computer small enough to wear like a wristwatch”, while detractors dismissed his claims as unscientific. But Ovshinsky always held a deep belief in the viability of his designs, persevering until the naysayers came round. As biographers Hellmut Fritzsche and Brian Schwartz write: “Ovshinsky's strong and unwavering belief in himself and his awareness of his superior intelligence as well as his unusually dogged mind guided him through times when the establishment just could not accept that he was right. Ovshinsky knew that pure reason and clear logic as well as the laws of nature were on his side; he had thought through and understood each problem and saw the results of his ideas in his lab.”

In 1960, Ovshinsky and second wife Iris Dibner - who had the tertiary qualifications he lacked, including a PhD in biochemistry - founded the Energy Conversion Laboratory, working as a team to achieve what they considered their life's mission: using science and technology to solve the world's societal and environmental problems.

Hacking hybrids

To demonstrate the effectiveness of hydrogen fuel cells as an automotive technology, Ovshinsky once installed one of his metal hydride canisters in an ordinary Toyota Prius, running the combustion engine on low-pressure hydrogen.
Reportedly, a visiting Toyota engineer was incredulous until he cupped his hands underneath the exhaust pipe and tasted the water coming out.

Soon engineers, physicists and other scientists were streaming into Ovshinsky's small lab in Detroit, exploring, learning and collaborating on solutions in this new field. Visitors included a young Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore - who would go on to found Intel - and it was an engaging time, with the lab developing products including electronic memory, batteries, and solar cells, many which launched lucrative new industries, such as flat-screen LCDs. Ovshinsky's passion and drive created a productive atmosphere, and many who knew him were drawn to his charismatic and philanthropic personality. The work environment was also uncharacteristically non-hierarchical and communal, with only two titles between cleaner and CEO, and salaries organised along similarly non-extreme lines. As he says in an interview with The Henry Ford, giving advice to young entrepreneurs: “Build a new society in your company. Don't pigeonhole people but bring out the best in them, where you're the leader only by example. Don't fill it with bureaucracy because bureaucracy always has a life of its own, and get committed people who will be excited and dedicated...because changing the world for the better is a struggle that goes beyond our lifetime.”

Ovshinsky had always been a deeply practical inventor, determined to back his theoretical breakthroughs with actual tools and working solutions. To reflect the focus on products not just ideas, in 1964 Ovshinsky and Iris changed the lab's name to Energy Conversion Devices (ECD), and the company grew slowly but steadily, licensing its technology to big-name tech firms so it could plough the profits back into developing planet-friendly solutions.

Always pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible, Ovshinsky describes the periodic table as his “working kit, my toolbox”. In the Henry Ford interview, he says: “Everything I do is based on that table...putting elements together and seeing their response to each other to get new mechanisms and new phenomena - physical, chemical, electronic and structural mechanisms that have never been seen or heard of before - that is what I do.”

High energy

The Ovshinskys' interest in civil rights and environmental responsibility saw them focus on inventions that would free the world from pollution and planet-destroying fossil fuels, and they looked for more environmentally-friendly ways of harnessing energy. With their combined expertise, they created energy generation storage systems that would form the basis of modern hybrid vehicles, as well as solar panel technology which delivered unprecedented efficiencies.

One of their most successful products, which has become the standard in laptops, digital cameras, cellphones, and consumer electronics of all kinds, was the nickel metal hydride battery, a more environmentally friendly version of earlier batteries which is also used in electric and hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight.

A bittersweet chapter in the inventor's life came in the 1990s, after General Motors (GM) chose his company to provide the batteries for the auto maker's EV1 electric car. Ovshinsky's battery gave the EV1 a range of 140 miles - double its previous capacity. GM acquired a majority stake in his company and changed the name to GM Ovonics. But GM wasn't truly behind the EV1, and after pressure from the fossil fuel industry, sold its stake in GM Ovonics, recalled all its leased electric cars, and crushed all but a few. Ovshinsky was devastated, and grew even more mistrusting of 'big oil' corporates.

Ovshinsky continued to patent technologies throughout the 1970s and '80s, and in 1983, patented a system that allowed photovoltaic solar panels to be manufactured in continuous, massive rolls, like a newspaper press. Previously, cells had been produced as individual, small panels and ECD's method for making cells 'by the mile' attracted significant interest from the alternative energy sector. The company grew quickly, with revenue climbing from a few million dollars a year to nine figures, and the number of employees reached the 1 000 mark.

Science has to have values.

Stanford Ovshinsky

This new-found attention, however, soon highlighted an area Ovshinsky wasn't a natural at - leading a big company. He had filled the board with great scientific minds that would challenge and inspire, not ones that would drive maximum profits. While ECD had gone public in the 1960s, it had managed to stay under the radar with steady but not spectacular growth. The new interest in its solar rollprint technology, however, meant greater pressure to focus on the bottom line - pressure which Ovshinsky didn't appreciate or pay much attention to. He found more of his time was spent juggling managerial duties instead of research and development, and an element of drudgery had entered his usually dynamic work environment.

Things got even worse after the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed in 2002, which forced Ovshinsky to take on additional outside directors, whose eyes were on earnings rather than experimentation. He also had to enforce a reporting hierarchy on what had always been an informal, collegial company, and long-time staff members began to leave. After Iris' sudden death in 2006, Ovshinsky retired.

Fresh start

Celebrated

With more than 300 publications, Ovshinsky has won many prizes for his contributions to science, even though he isn't well known by the general public. Some of his achievements include:
* The 2005 Innovation Award for Energy and the Environment by The Economist;
* The American Solar Energy Society Hoyt Clarke Hottel Award;
* The Karl W. B"oer Solar Energy Medal of Merit;
* The International Association for Hydrogen Energy Sir William Grove Award;
* The 2007 Walston Chubb Award for Innovation;
* The 2006 Frederick Douglass/Eugene V. Debs Award;
* The 2008 Environmental Hall of Fame Award, Solar Thin Film Category,
* Named “Hero for the Planet" by Time magazine (1999)

As he has often asserted, Ovshinsky believes information and energy are the twin pillars of the global economy, and in the 1960s already had conceptualised the idea of a 'hydrogen loop'. This would involve getting hydrogen from solar energy and storing it as a solid in stationary or mobile chambers. As the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen, if tapped correctly, could serve as a limitless source of clean energy. But separating hydrogen from other molecules is an energy-intensive process- which usually involves using GHG-emitting fossil fuels.

Ovshinsky has pioneered hydrogen technologies that provide energy without these drawbacks, including fuel cells for vehicles. In addition to his metal hydride battery, Ovshinsky has developed hydrogen storage cylinders, which supply fuel directly to cars. To allay safety concerns around using flammable hydrogen, he created a sponge-like material that absorbs hydrogen gas, rather than storing the high-pressure gas itself, making it safe and easy to transport. Other common objections to hydrogen as an energy source include mass production and distribution - obstacles which Ovshinsky has, again, tackled with aplomb. He has built a solid hydride fuel station, which is mobile, as well as a dispenser, which can be easily be mass produced and shipped anywhere. The station converts solar energy to hydrogen via electrolysis, releasing hydrogen when electricity flows through water. Ovshinsky believes we already have all the means necessary for making the hydrogen economy a reality - except, perhaps, political will.

In the year following his wife's death, Ovshinsky drifted for a while, and then in 2007, married physicist Rosa Young and started a new company, Ovshinsky Solar, at age 88. The goal: to get the unsubsidised cost of solar power below that of coal. He and his small team of researchers are now working to achieve the breakthroughs that will make photovoltaic solar cells cheaper than fossil fuels, and it seems the characteristic verve of the 89-year-old inventor who is “18 at heart” is back, and likely to stay.

“I'm an inventor because I love science - new science, new technology - and what I want to do is use science and technology for the good of our planet,” he says in the Henry Ford interview.

For Ovshinsky, it's never just about innovation - he always has his eye on a greater prize: “Science has to have values. Human beings are part of civilization. And civilization is the arts and music and those things that advance civilization, the whole world. So you don't have civilization without proper values.”

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