Stanford R. Ovshinsky

Stanford R. Ovshinsky

Stanford R. Ovshinsky (1922- ) is an American engineer, inventor, and physicist. He has been involved in the development of amorphous silicon semiconductor materials, which gave rise to a whole new segment of material engineering, aiding in the construction of semiconductors, solar energy, and electric cars. These materials are used in photocopy machines, fax machines and LCD displays.

Ovshinsky was granted numerous patents in the 1970s and 1980s for amorphous semiconductor materials.


Ovshinsky grew up in Akron, Ohio and is of Jewish and Lithuanian descent. He developed into a successful mechanical and electrical engineer and became a skilled machinist during World War II after which he got his first patent for a two-headed lathe designed to produce two (twin) artillery projectiles at a time on the same machine.

In the 1950s Ovshinsky shifted his interests towards the new field of electrical engineering. He co-founded Energy Conversion Laboratories, Inc. in 1960, with his wife Iris, to continue research into chalcogenides in general as switching materials. After some advances in switching technology circa 1963, Ovshinsky changed the name of the company to Energy Conversion Devices,Inc. (ECD).

In the early days of ECD, Nobel Prize winners were among those who dropped in to talk to Stan and tour his laboratory. William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, was a frequent visitor. I.I. Rabi, the inventor of NMR, came by as well as Sir Neville Mott, the world's greatest theorist of electrical conductivity. As consultants, Ovshinsky hired well known academics such as David Turnbull (Harvard University) and Arnold Bienenstock whose international reputations in physics lent luster to ECD's research whenever a news announcement was made about new developments.

These announcements appeared on the front pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the covers of magazines, ["Making It," Anon., Electronics, Sept. 28, 1970, page 4, and photo of ECD memory on cover.] greatly encouraging new investment. Over a period of about 40 years, it is estimated that ECD spent half a billion dollars ["Electronics Pioneer Hunts for Profits," by Barnaby Feder, New York Times, July 28, 1987, page 6.] before any profit was made. However, license fees to ECD are beginning to grow, now that amorphous chalcogenides are used for inexpensive solar cells, and in modified form for CD-RW optical disks, and possibly even for RAM chips. ["Next Phase For RAM," by David Lammers, Electronic Engineering Times, June 23, 2003, page 1.] ECD also has claims on the profits from the nickel metal hydride batteries that were important in laptop computers and are important in hybrid gas-electric automobiles. ["G.M. Signs Electric Car Battery Deal," by Matthew Wald, New York Times, March 10, 1994, page D4.] [Ovonics Collects Big Bucks From Japanese Battery Makers," Anon., Automotive Industry, Dec. 1997, page 9.]

Since 1990, Ovshinsky has been a member of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, along with his wife Iris until her death in August 2006.

On August 24, 2007, ECD made public Ovshinsky's retirement from the company effective August 31, 2007. According to the Great Lakes IT Report, his retirement completes his involvement as employee and company director.

Ovshinsky has won prizes ["ACS Honors Heroes of Chemistry," Anon., Chemical and Engineering News (Amer. Chem. Soc.), Sept. 4, 2000, page 50.] for outstanding innovation in the U.S. and Europe. The American Ceramic Society now offers the Ovshinsky Award for scientists in the field of amorphous materials research. Stanford R. Ovshinsky is one of the most prolific inventors in American history. He holds hundreds of patents, which puts him in a league the head of which is Thomas Edison.


The Ovitron

Ovshinsky invented and patented the Ovitron, a hybrid solid state/liquid state device that allowed a small variation in voltage to switch a large current (i.e., a relay). This was a feat that germanium and silicon transistors did not do well as their properties degraded rapidly at the high temperatures produced by high current densities. The Ovitron was based on thin films of tantalum oxides supported on tantalum wires and immersed in a hermetically sealed polyethylene can filled with an oxidizing electrolyte (sulphuric acid). The US Air Force tried the device in airborne electronics, but although it worked it was judged too prone to catastrophic failure (rupture of the sulphuric acid container) for combat use.


In the early 1960s he had samples of various metallic and semi-metallic chalcogenides produced in bulk to determine if they exhibited electronic switching properties as did the tantalum chalcogenide, tantalum oxide. Noting that on certain chalcogenide glasses an electronic switching "mechanism" could be observed by placing two contact electrodes close together on a smooth surface and establishing a voltage between the electrodes Ovshinsky instructed his materials researcher to determine how to manufacture reproducible thin films of the materials for further testing.

In 1963 ECL obtained a vacuum deposition chamber and began experimentally depositing thin films of glassy (amorphous) chalcogenides on non conducting substrates. Ovshinsky soon proposed that concave surfaces be polished on amorphous graphite pins and then after depositing thin films of selected chalcogenides on the polished surfaces of the pins they, the coated surfaces, could be mated in a quartz tube in which they slip fit. These devices exhibited a reproducible threshold voltage switching of relatively high currents.


He obtained U.S. 3,271,591 (with 33 broad claims), covering switching diodes made from amorphous chalcogen compounds such as tellurium alloys. These have bistable resistivity states and can also be used as electronic memory units. Similar phenomena had been observed earlier ["Bistable Conductor," Alan T. Waterman, Physical Review, Vol. 21, 1923, page 540.] by scientists like Alan T. Waterman but not pursued. Bell Telephone Laboratories had also observed similar phenomena, but had not gone forward to the device stage.

The problem that held back large scale usage of the Ovshinsky diode was poor reliability, caused by cracks in the low resistance micro-channel. ECD sold patent cross-licenses to larger electronics companies. One of those, ITT Corporation, obtained U.S. 3,448,302, which covered the solution to the cracking problem. The mutual cross-licensing allowing ECD to obtain funding for further research, because little circuit boards could then be given out free to prospective licensees, to reliably demonstrate the memory device.

Workmen's Circle

Stan is also a dedicated member of the workmen's circle. He was honored in the 2008 Camp Kinder Olympics.

In popular culture

* Ovskinsky appeared in the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?".

ee also

* Ovonics
* Who Killed the Electric Car?
* Phase change memory, especially timeline items for June 1969 and Sept. 2006.


Further reading

* Howard, George S., "Stan Ovshinsky and the Hydrogen Economy", c. 2006 Biography of Stan Ovshinsky

External links

* [ Scientific American Frontiers on Meet the Ovshinskys]
* [ The Economist: The Edison of our age?]
* [ Lemelson-MIT Inventor of the Week: Amorphous Semiconductor Materials]
* [ Ovonics: Energy Conversion Devices] :* [ Stanford R. Ovshinsky] . 2-page biography by Ovonic.
* [,2967,ovshinsky,00.html TIME Magazine: Heroes for the Planet]
* [ Stan Ovshinsky and the Hydrogen Economy page, with excerpt]
* [ Mother Earth News: Meet Stan Ovshinsky, the Energy Genius]
* [ Wall Street Journal: Power Surge: After Decades, A Solar Pioneer Sees Spark in Sales; Mr. Ovshinsky's Roofing Can Generate Electricity; Other Ideas Lose Money. A Timely Boost From Germany.]
* [ Stan and Iris have a complete system to eliminate fossil fuels. "Hydrogen has been called the ultimate fuel and the sun is the ultimate source of hydrogen."]

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