Stanford Ovshinsky, 1922-2012

Stanford and Iris Ovshinsky. Image from a Christmas card sent to Linus Pauling, 1990.

Stanford R. Ovshinsky, a self-taught scientist and the inventor of the nickel-metal hydride battery, died on October 17th at his home in Michigan, at the age of 89.

Stanford Robert Ovshinsky was born in 1922 in Akron, Ohio to hardworking immigrant parents who encouraged his early mechanical interests. Ovshinsky married Norma Rifkin shortly after high school and worked for a few years at a Goodyear plant in Arizona. He then returned to Akron and, in 1946, opened up his own machine and lathe manufacturing shop. It was during this period that he patented his first invention, an original lathe. This design was admired by the New Britain Machine Company in Connecticut, which bought his company in 1950 and used the apparatus to manufacture artillery shells during the Korean War.

Despite Ovshinsky’s lack of higher education, his ingenuity was widely recognized by his peers and, in 1952, he was hired as the director of research at the Hupp Motor Company. Just a couple of years later, Ovshinsky and his younger brother, Herbert, established a new company, General Automation. Although the business was focused on designing automation equipment, Stanford pursued interests in a variety of areas, including energy technologies and neurophysiology.

These diverse interests led him to invent the Ovitron, a semiconductor based on the model of a nerve cell and utilizing amorphous thin films. This invention was the first to use nanostructures and surprised the scientific community greatly. The discovery also led to what became known as the Ovshinsky Effect, which described the flow of electrical currents in an amorphous flux. The breakthrough likewise disproved the notion that electricity could only flow in a crystalline environment and showed that it can transfer in a jelly-like environment. Ovshinsky patented the Ovitron in 1959.

Ovshinsky and his first wife were divorced in 1959 and shortly thereafter Stanford wed Iris Miroy Dibner. The pair were happily married for 46 years until Iris’s death in 2006. Beyond their close personal relationship, Stanford and Iris were also business partners. Iris held a BA in zoology from Swarthmore College, an MS in biology from the University of Michigan, and a Ph. D in biochemistry from Boston University – a stark contrast to Stanford’s complete lack of higher education.

Ovshinsky in 1960. (Credit: Energy Conversion Devices, Inc., courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives)

The Ovshinskys founded Energy Conversion Devices, Inc. in 1960 as a vehicle for their ideas in the field of amorphous materials, with special emphasis on energy conversion. The couple used Stanford’s amorphous nanostructures discovery as a building block to propel advances in electronic memory, batteries, and solar cells.  Noteworthy among these advances was the nickel-metal hydride battery, which is used today to power hybrid cars. Over the course of their careers, the Ovshinskys also contributed to the invention of solar energy laminates and panels, flat-panel displays, and rewritable CD and DVD disks.

In 1963 Hellmut Fritzsche, a noted semiconductor researcher at the University of Chicago, visited Energy Conversion Devices and was immediately impressed. Fritzsche helped attract other scientists to the company to help with fundraising and eventually became its vice president. Many years later, in 1986, Linus Pauling joined the ranks, agreeing to serve as a consultant to company and as a member of the advisory committee of the affiliated Institute for Amorphous Studies. Pauling and Ovshinsky shared an interest in alternative energy sources as well as a distaste for nuclear energy. Pauling was also interested in Ovshinsky’s research on the mechanisms underlying high-temperature superconductors.

Ovshinsky won the Coors American Ingenuity Award in 1988. In reporting on the award Colorado Business Magazine noted that Ovshinsky, “one of the greatest inventors of this century,” longed

to see ovonic solar cells provide much of the world’s energy needs. If he can obtain enough orders to bring production costs down, Ovshinsky hopes to see solar energy soon reducing the world’s dependency on nonrenewable, polluting energy sources…Another discovery of Ovshinsky’s, that of storing data on glass-coated optical disks, is predicted by some to be the new choice of the computer industry, replacing the magnetic disk.

In concert with the award, August 1st was declared Stanford Ovshinsky Day in Denver, Colorado.

For the remainder of their collaboration, the Ovshinskys continued to focus on the development of renewable energy sources and promote them in the US. In 1988 Stanford wrote

Nondepletable, nonpolluting, ubiquitous sunshine must be the major power source for a brighter future for us all….The solution is clear and fortunately in place. What is on the agenda now that is going to have enormous economic consequences is the urgent need for the growth of photovoltaics for the generation of electricity and practical electric cars using newly developed nonpolluting hydride batteries….The true cost of oil is so high that we cannot afford it at any price.

Pauling commended Ovshinsky’s stance regarding alternative energy, writing “I am completely in agreement with [Ovshinsky’s] statement. I think that we need immediately to be putting much more money into solar energy and into batteries.”

Based on their frequent correspondence through letters and consistent exchange of Christmas cards in the 1980s and 1990s, we know that the Ovshinskys and Pauling maintained a cordial relationship based on mutual admiration and respect for many years.  Further evidence is held in a 1989 letter in which Ovshinsky wrote to express his pleasure in learning of Pauling’s receipt of the Vannevar Bush Award from the National Science Board.  “Congratulations on yet another well deserved award!” he wrote. “Your profound impact has not only been on chemists but on physicists, material scientists, medical scientists and everyone. You have taught, inspired, and touched us all.”

Some three years later, Pauling reciprocated the sentiment by nominating Ovshinsky for the 1992 Japan Prize in the field of Science and Technology of Material Interfaces. In his nomination letter, Pauling revealed the depth of his respect for his colleague.

I have known Stanley Ovshinsky for more than twenty years. His contributions to the understanding of the properties of metals and intermetallic compounds, especially the electronic properties and especially those of amorphous substances, have constituted a very significant contribution to our understanding of these materials and to their technological applications.

After Iris Ovshinsky died in 2006, Stanford retired from Energy Conversion Devices. He married Rosa Young in 2007 and started a new company with her, Ovshinsky Innovation. He continued to work on renewable energy technologies until his death last month.

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