Stanford Ovshinsky – A Modern Day Edison

“Stanford who?” the average person might ask.

Stanford Ovshinsky is an 83-year-old Michigan inventor who might just save the world yet from its oil addiction and energy-wasting ways. And he might even save General Motors despite their own energy-wasting ways.

The sheer number of Stanford Ovshinsky’s patents comes in second to Thomas Edison. Like Edison, he never went to college and never finished high school. He’s not even an engineer.

During World War II, he opened a machine shop, where he created his first patented invention, a two-headed lathe that produced two artillery shells at a time on the same machine. Ovshinsky was never trained as a machinist. In fact, every discipline that he’s learned has been self-taught.

After teaching himself electric and electronic engineering in the fifties, he opened his company, Energy Conversion Devices. During this period, he became fascinated with thin film materials as conductors of electricity and optical data. His research led to a major conceptual breakthrough, the invention of “amorphous semiconductor materials.”

“So what?” the average person might say. “It’s just another esoteric invention from just another geek.”

But, Stanford Ovshinsky is hardly just another geek and amorphous semiconductor materials aren’t just another esoteric invention. And this was not just a conceptual breakthrough for Ovshinsky, he had solved a problem that prestigious scientists had deemed impossible for years.

Amorphous semiconductor materials ushered in a whole new technological arena, becoming a key ingredient in the development of the fax machine, rewritable CDs and DVDs, and flat panel liquid crystal displays.

Soon Nobel Prize winning scientists began making fairly regular visits to Ovshinsky’s lab. They included the likes of William Shockley, I.I. Rabi, and Sir Neville Mott.

Further development of these thin film materials led Ovshinsky to his next important discovery in the seventies. His system of manufacturing photovoltaic panels in continuous rolls 1000 feet in length was a major breakthrough in solar energy technology, particularly for the building industry. His film panels were considerably lighter and much more economical than standard solar energy panels used at that time.

In 1994, Ovshinsky earned a patent for a “high-energy environmentally-friendly maintenance-free rechargeable electric car battery.”

While more Japanese companies have availed themselves of Stanford Ovshinsky’s technologies than American companies, in 1998 General Motors made his battery innovations a prime part of their EV1, an electric vehicle that became available for lease in California. However, according to the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car“, while GM made the car available in California, they bent over backwards to show the State that there was no demand for the car and then in 2002 proceeded to take back every leased car, even though many of the leasers wanted to buy their vehicles from GM. Almost all the EV1s were destroyed. Only a few wound up on display in museums and universities.

Several weeks before the documentary debuted, the Smithsonian Museum removed their EV1 display. Despite current pressures, due to rising oil prices, General Motors has no plans on reviving the EV1.

In the meantime, Stanford Ovshinsky continues to innovate in his Rochester Hills, Michigan laboratories, a stone’s throw from General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler world headquarters.

SOURCES:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_R._Ovshinsky

“Meet the Ovshinskys”, Maggie Villiger, PBS, URL: (http://www.pbs.org/saf/1506/features/ovshinsky.htm)

“Listen, Detroit”, Margot Hornblower, Time, URL: (http://www.time.com/time/reports/environment/heroes/heroesgallery/0,2967,ovshinsky,00.html)

http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/ovshinsky.html

“A solar entrepreneur sees a spark in sales”, John J. Fialka, Wall Street Journal, URL: (http://www.startupjournal.com/howto/successstories/20061201-fialka.html)

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