Stanford Ovshinsky: Inventor of NiMH Batteries

Stanford Ovshinsky was a brilliant, self-educated, iconoclastic scientist who was the inventor of the nickel-metal hydride battery. He also contributed to the development of many modern day conveniences including flat-panel displays, solar panels and rewritable CDs and DVDs. He was one of the 20th century’s most gifted inventors, and has been compared to Thomas Edison in the way his ideas were quickly applied to commercial applications.

Stanford was born in 24th November, 1922 in Akron, Ohio to Benjamin and Bertha Ovshinsky. His dad was a Lithuanian immigrant who dealt in scrap metals. Through his contacts, young Stanford was engaged as a lathe operator while still in high school. Ovshinsky did not like school but he was an avid reader. He completed his studies at trade school and used the public libraries in Ohio to complement his education.

Stanford-OvshinskyDue to asthma, he was excused from military service and he married Norma Rifkin before moving to Phoenix to be employed in a Good Year factory. In 1946, he went back to Akron to set up a lathe manufacturing business. His lathe designs made the New Britain Machine Company to buy his business in 1950.Two years later he became a director of research at a motor maker company called Hupp. He and Herbert, his brother, established General Automation in 1955, which later became Ovitron and Energy Conversion Devices in 1967.He retired from energy conversion in 2007 to work on combining information technologies and energy. Energy Conversion would later sell Ovonic Battery Company, its battery-making subsidiary, to BASF, and file for bankruptcy.

Ovshinsky gained special attention for constantly going against conventional wisdom regarding the nature and behavior of semiconductors. Semiconductors, which allow or block electrical current according to the voltage applied, normally comprise of crystals with well-arranged molecules. In the 1950s Mr. Ovshinsky reckoned that other less ordered materials could also be used as semiconductors. He was convinced that using such amorphous (disordered) materials could be much cheaper to
design than materials like silicone crystals which were widely used as semiconductors then. His ideas were treated with skepticism and widely scorned. After all he was an unconventional, unknown inventor without a college degree and working in the automobile industry, not in the electronics hotbed of Boston or Silicon Valley.

In the end,however, he prevailed. The electronics industry would credit him for the idea that thin films or small quantities of amorphous materials could, when exposed to electric charge, instantly transform their structures into crystal-like form able to carry significant current. This new field of semiconductors came to be referred as ovonics. Ovonics combined his name and electronics to depict the technology underlying non-polluting, non-depletable energy sources. His principal aim was to minimize dependence on depletable fossil energy by substituting it with hydrogen and solar power.

In 1960, Ovshinsky and the late Iris Miroy his second wife established Energy Conversion Laboratories which was later renamed Energy Conversion Devices four years later.This company, and its spinoff companies, licensees and subsidiaries began to translate Ovshinsky’s ideas into electronic, mechanical and energy appliances such as solar-powered calculators. Most of his works was centered on development of photovoltaic panels which convert solar energy to electricity. He envisioned a time when roof shingles could be made using solar panels.

Ovshinsky’s greatest technological success was developing nickel-metal hydride (called NiMH)battery that could be utilized in cars. This was after he found out that the materials that existing battery manufactures favored lacked the disordered nature required to store sufficient electricity quantities. His nickel-metal hydride battery is used for powering hybrid cars and many portable electronic devices among other equipment and appliances. However the nickel-metal hydride battery encountered many other obstacles besides acceptance by modern science. General Motors held the initial license of his technology but it would later, ironically, end up at Chevron, an oil company. Ovshinsky holds over 200 patents related to optical discs, electronic-memory technologies and flat-panel displays.

Ovshinsky also strongly championed the merits of alternative energy and warned about the dangers presented by the world’s insatiable appetite for oil. He cautioned that such voracious demand for oil would lead to climate change and resource wars. More than half a century ago he started to promote hydrogen fuel cells as a viable alternative to the environment-unfriendly internal combustion engine. Using what is dubbed hydrogen loop, water is transformed into stored hydrogen using solar-based electrolysis and again hydrogen converted back to water. This process generates electricity in the fuel cell. This hydrogen-based technology is still under intensive development by automakers.

His promotional and marketing acumen resulted in the energy conversion devices roping in giant investors like 3M, Texaco, Canon, Chevron, General Motors and Standard Oil. They combined to invest millions of dollars into his ventures, some of which were not successful. However, these commercial failures of some of his ideas never deterred him from trying to implement more ideas. He continued to pen scientific papers and cultivated collaborations with science luminaries like Nevill Mott who was the winner of the Nobel physics prize in 1977 for his work on amorphous materials.

Stanford Ovshinsky died of cancer complications at his home (in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan) in October 17th 2012.He was 89 years old.



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