Sigma Xi 125th Anniversary Interview

Stanford R. Ovshinsky (1990) 
Interviewed by Greg P. Smestad (SX 1982)

As part of Sigma Xi's Quasquicentennial (125th) anniversary celebration, we asked our members to identify those more-established members who have demonstrated notable achievements in their field and have shown loyalty and dedication to Sigma Xi during their years of membership. Some of our younger members were then asked to interview the members so recognized. Stanford Ovshinsky (SX 1990) was one of the members recognized.

Ovshinsky is co-founder, with his late wife, Iris Ovshinsky, of Energy Conversion Devices, and he has received more than 400 U.S. patents for his inventions. He is the creator of the nickel metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable battery, regenerative fuel cells, solid hydrogen storage systems, and amorphous silicon photovoltaics (PV).  In 2007, he left ECD and founded Ovshinsky Innovation and, more recently, Ovshinsky Solar in order to continue his lifelong work to make PV modules that could produce electricity at a lower cost than burning coal. Among his numerous honors, Stanford Ovshinsky was Time magazine's 1999 Hero for the Planet and Sigma Xi's 2007 recipient of the Walston Chubb Award for Innovation.

He was interviewed on September 29, 2011, by Greg P. Smestad, Associate Editor for the journal Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells.

Greg P. Smestad (GPS): First, thank you for doing this interview.

Stanford R. Ovshinsky (SO):  I’ve been a great fan of American Scientist for many years.  I don’t know if they called it that when I first came across it in the 1940s.  The magazine made a great impression on me, going from technology and invention to science, and presenting it all to the public.

GPS: I am a materials scientist like yourself. I am an editor for the journalSolar Energy Materials and Solar Cells. I also try to make a bridge in communicating science to the public at times. What is your organization?

SO: My identification is through two companies that I’ve set up: Ovshinsky Innovation and Ovshinsky Solar. I want to make photovoltaics (PV) cheaper than coal. It’s something that I am personally funding.  I wanted to prove that one can make a single solar energy plant with, say, 150 thousand square feet and several machines, each one capable of putting out over one gigawatt (GW) of photoelectric solar modules a year as compared to megawatts a year. Of course, we had to solve important problems to make this happen. Before I started working on it, nobody would consider that it was even possible.

GPS: Why is that? What are the problems?

The biggest problem in the existing method of producing amorphous silicon thin film solar panels is that they are made too slowly.  The best method involves running rolls of a suitable substrate through various deposition chambers in an automated continuous web, making the solar panels in a way that is analogous to how newspapers are printed.  In this method, the speeds for producing the solar cells are very low (the thickness is built up at a rate between 2 and 10 Angstroms per second).  For that reason, it’s just too expensive. I proved more recently that we can make depositions at 300 to 400 Angstroms a second without the typical material degradation (the Staebler-Wronski Effect) that has plagued amorphous silicon. In my original company, Energy Conversion Devices, we made thin single junction amorphous silicon cells, but we also made triple junction solar cells to gather more of the spectrum of the sun.  One uses p and n doped regions of amorphous materials and a relevant bandgap (say 1.6 eV) to absorb much of the sunlight.  The un-absorbed photons pass through the amorphous material, generating charge carriers (and an electrical current) in the next layer.  For some tandem junction devices, that deeper layer can be microcrystalline silicon.  The conventional approach typically uses an amorphous and microcrystalline tandem junction produced at very low throughput speeds.  I’ve invented a new amorphous material and a new nanocrystalline tandem junction device that can be deposited well above 300 Angstroms per second. 

GPS: What made you want to be a scientist and engineer?

SO: I was interested in science from a very early age. I read early as a child and showed so much interest in reading that in the one-room library near my house in Akron, Ohio, I was the only child allowed to take out as many books as I wanted, on any subject, and without censorship.  And so I read about many subjects that I found interesting, especially science.  I was interested in all the areas of science, not just particular ones. I did not believe then, nor do I believe now, in the divisions of science into disciplines. I was interested in learning about the whole field of science. I have always felt that God did not make disciplines, humans did.  But you have to know each area that you are interested in deeply.  I think that way of thinking about science is what made it possible for me to have been able to work in various fields and later, in the 50’s, to start my own field focused on amorphous and disordered materials.  They make possible new physical mechanisms that had not been anticipated.

GPS: You have had so many accomplishments.  Could you go through just a few of them, focusing on what you feel were most fulfilling to you, both as a person and as a scientist?

SO: I think that I need to preface my answer by explaining that I grew up in the Great Depression and saw a lot of things that were wrong in society—poverty, unemployment, just terrible things happening to human beings. And from a very early age social responsibility was one of my interests. Whatever I did, I wanted to not only be a scientist involved in new technologies, because that’s what excites me, but I wanted to be a scientist who could use my work in science and technology to help make a better world. That means solving the science problems that can build new industries and that can serve the country and the social needs of the people. For example, we talked about photovoltaics, or PV. PV can be the answer to 60% of the carbon emission problems we are facing today, and the problem of global warming. As you well know, and I am sure that the readership ofAmerican Scientist also knows, from one hour of energy emitted by the sun, which is the result of fusing hydrogen atoms, you can have enough energy for at least one year of the planet’s needs.  What’s wrong is that everything that is going on now in the field of solar energy makes getting that energy from the sun much too expensive.

Having been a person who worked in my early career as a toolmaker and an inventive machine builder, it has been natural for me to look towards inventing new technologies that would permit new scientific mechanisms that solve the problem of energy and therefore very difficult social problems.  For me, this is what is most exciting in science and technology. And to do that, you have to look upon technology very respectfully, as being an enhancing and necessary part of science. You have to do both new technology and new science to achieve your goals.
GPS: What significant changes have you seen in your very long and productive career, both in solar energy and in novel materials for energy?

SO: I think your question should also include other fields that I’ve worked in besides solar energy and novel materials.  But to answer your question, first of all I feel that we have to know what it is that has to be done and then build the new industries needed to solve the problems.  What I wanted to do was to use new science, technology, and innovation to change the world in the sense of solving serious societal problems. 

For example, the CO2 that comes from the vehicular industries and from vehicles that burn oil is a major problem, as it is a major cause of the climate change we are witnessing. My invention of the nickel metal hydride battery has successfully attacked 40% of the problem of CO2 pollution.  Putting these batteries into cars has led to a new industry.  One of the things I’ve done that I’m quite proud of is that in working to solve the problem of CO2 pollution is that I enabled the electric and hybrid vehicle industries.  They are among the new industries offering new opportunities for employment, because in America many of the old industries have either been destroyed or have dwindled down to almost nothing. You have to have new industries where the new jobs are in step with the higher educational levels. It’s a feedback loop.

GPS: Just to be clear for people reading this interview, you invented, or essentially enabled, the nickel metal hydride battery?

SO: I invented it.

GPS: And you are the one who said that amorphous materials can be used to store electricity. Could you describe that innovation and why that is possible from a materials and scientific standpoint?

SO: Well, amorphous and disordered materials are really what it’s about. I started that in the early 50’s. If you drive a car with a nickel metal hydride battery, like the Toyota Prius or Honda’s or Ford’s version, you find in the material of the battery as many as seven to eleven different elements.  Before I made a battery with this many elements in its material, people said it was unbelievable, impossible, not understandable, and would not work. “How could it possibly work when anybody else can’t go beyond four elements?”  But in these cars that do work today, you are working with as many as eleven elements.”

GPS: Those of us driving around in so-called green vehicles, or more advanced vehicles, are driving around with materials that you pioneered?

SO: Yes, I invented a battery that worked even though nobody believed in it beforehand.  I like to think of myself as enabling a field that people then got very interested in. The Japanese were the first of my licensees.

GPS: What would you consider the most important advice you could offer to a younger upcoming scientist who is just getting into the field now and encountering the kinds of pressures that you did?

SO: First of all, it is important to face the world’s most important problems.  During my lifetime, the most important economic problems of our global economy were, and still are, energy and information.  From my point of view, information really is encoded energy, but that is another issue.  What I want to stress now is just that I’m in energy and information: I work not only in the energy field, for example in solar energy, or batteries, or hydrogen, but I also work in the field of information. And in the area of information, I’m the inventor of Ovonic phase change memory, the Ovonic threshold switch, the triple junction device which replaces transistors and the Ovonic cognitive computer.

The big point is that in all my work in energy and information I used amorphous and disordered materials because of the additional degrees of freedom that these materials offer in atomic and orbital relationships, where you can put in several different atoms. Say you go to four to eleven elements, and have them all work together as part of a new mechanism. That brings forth new science and new technology that solves problems that you just can’t address with very highly constrained crystalline or semi-crystalline materials, because the crystalline structure does not allow disorder.  In crystals you need to keep the atoms in a phase close to being perfect. And there, if you want to change the material’s properties, well then you have to sneak in a dopant to destroy the perfection.

GPS: So would you give advice to younger scientists looking at materials not just to focus on simple things that are highly ordered or understood, but also to look at the complex interactions between many types of atoms?

SO: Right, exactly. It could not be said any better. Because that is where the future is. The constraints of crystallinity are too severe. I’m not attacking crystals; I think they are wonderful. The only reason that I work with nanocrystals more, is that there, once you are at the quantum limit, you have new physics.  Just like you have tunneling at the quantum limit, you have new physics at the quantum limit in amorphous and disordered materials.

GPS:  You were doing nanotechnology before nanotechnology was fashionable, weren’t you?

SO: Yes, I was doing it in the 50s.
GPS: That suggests some advice that we can give to up-and-coming scientists, that it may take a very long time before an idea is accepted.

SO: That’s what I like the most—that the work has led to useful products to make the world better.  I would like to have what I’ve done be an example for young people to be bold and unconstrained. They must know or learn that.  They must also learn that learning is so exciting.  I have always enjoyed learning and I’m still doing it all the time now. Young people must have a love of learning, learning in-depth, and be ready to think after they’ve mastered the classics and the conventional and be able to think what could possibly be out there that they can do that would be challenging.

Of course, an invention is something new, something that was not there or had not been done before. And if it has not been done before, it is going to get a lot of resistance and lack of praise, to say the least.  You need to expect that resistance and not let it destroy your motivation.  So it is not going to be an easy life.  It is going to be a struggle, but it’s worth it. The joy of physics and the joy of science makes up for everything else—for anything about money, for anything about power or about awards that people think about in industry or in the university. If you want to be creative, you must feel that you can be bold.  But you must also be right. That means data controls everything.  I often say, in God we trust, but everyone else has to show data.

GPS: What do you think are the most pressing needs to be met in science in the coming years? What would you like to see scientific research accomplish next?

SO: First of all, anti-science is rampant now in the U.S.  Many people reject the approach of science and even what we learn using science.  It’s a crime. I know scientists working on climate who get death threats.  My God, 98% of the scientific community, especially those directly involved with doing the research, know that there is climate change, and they are trying to learn more and are thinking what can be done about it.  And here comes a reaction questioning that, and it is only an opinion based on belief.  Well in science an opinion is a speculation, one that you have to prove in order to be taken seriously. It is really remarkable that in a civilized country like the U.S., we are now dealing with people who attack science with ideas based only on belief, and who make it difficult for those who do new science to get a proper hearing.

GPS: To what extent do you think this anti-science rhetoric is localized in the U.S?

SO:  I think that the problem is worse in the U.S. than some other countries.  I’ve worked all over the world, throughout Asia, Russia and throughout Europe, and people look aghast at Americans; they think that we are primitives culturally. But they do appreciate us as scientists. For decades the U.S. has been a great country in science and it has been a great country in terms of leadership in industry and technology. But now, Germany is more enlightened.  Germany takes for granted the challenge of climate change and says they are going to get 35% of their energy from alternative energy sources by 2020. Germany says, “Sure, we can do that.”  But surely America can do this too. A “can do” attitude in science and technology is what America was built on.

GPS: Would you say that a pressing need in this country is to have the public, and politicians, as well as scientists, realize that science is very important to moving forward?

SO: What you said is so beautiful. The fact is that you can build new industries with new science and technologies.  New science and technology is required to replace the dying or dead industries. For example, I was brought up in Akron when it was the rubber capital of the world.  But there’s not a bit of rubber made there now.  In the same way, Youngstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, once knew steel.  And in the Northeast and parts of Illinois, they were famous for its machine tools.   But all that is gone now.   All the companies that were world leaders in every area of industry and technology have left, except for the information industries based on younger people, like Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore, or a bit later, like the people of Google, who were ready to take the opportunities.  But even those industries get most of their manufacturing work done on the outside, in Asia.  We have a big problem in that the U.S. has become deindustrialized.

GPS: Coming back to the U.S., what do you think we could tell the public and policy makers about the next great industries that we would like to grow and foster in the U.S.?

SO: First of all, we must tell them that they must have vision, because without vision the people perish. And they have to follow through on the need to build new industries.  Unemployment and the lack of jobs is a crime. Young people should be able to go to universities no matter what their position is in society. Bureaucracy is the enemy of progress. We have serious problems to solve. Besides the deindustrialization of the U.S. there is climate change and our dependence on oil.  But we must also tell them that approaching these problems also offers the solutions.  By solving those problems, we can build the new industries in the new industrial age.

GPS: As part of Sigma Xi’s 125th year celebration, we are focusing on ethics and responsible research. In your career, have you seen changes in ethical conduct within your field?

SO: Well, at the beginning I had to face unethical conduct by those companies that felt threatened and scientists who took the point of view that what I proposed or solved could not be done, and all that sort of thing.  And they made life difficult.

GPS: But you’ve seen a change where, over time, scientists have come to accept and even embrace your ideas?

SO: Right, I don’t have that problem now.

GPS: Have you seen changes in ethical conduct within your field?

SO: My field had giant corporations and backward scientists who were very, very critical. Being critical is something that’s got to be in science, of course. But there should be no slander or other kinds of unethical behavior.  I am happy to say that I’ve seen a great improvement.  As far as the slander that was directed at me, I think that is to be expected if you come from nowhere and you have made something that others haven’t made.   Fortunately, I had the support of many great scientists whose work had an extremely important part in making modern science possible.

GPS: Do you feel the scientific method, which includes coming up with an idea, collecting data, analyzing it, publishing it, and letting others try to judge and reproduce the work is becoming more, or less, ethical?  I’d also like to hear what you think we can do to strengthen scientific ethics.

SO: That’s a very good question. I think that scientific ethics is one of the things that should be taught in the academic world. You can’t do it in a preaching way. You can’t assume people are guilty.  But they have to know what the standards are, and that they must obey those standards in order to be a part of the scientific community.

GPS: What are the common pitfalls that a young or pressured scientist faces in crossing the line ethically?

SO: Well, I don’t know, I never did.

GPS: But, you’ve seen it.

SO: Yes, but I was always able to provide evidence and prove everything I did.

GPS: With data.

SO: Yes, data, but not only the data.  Young people need to learn not to take the easy path, but to take the paths that lead to progress and, in all cases, to look across disciplines and obey and honor the standards that the scientific community has always depended on. We have to be absolutely sure. “In God we trust; all others must bring data.”  I consider that quote, from W. Edwards Deming, extremely important.

GPS: One of Sigma Xi’s strengths is its interdisciplinary nature. How important do you think interdisciplinary collaboration will be for solving some of the challenges that lie ahead in science?

SO: Well, I can only use myself as an example. I came across American Scientist by accident. That must have been in the late 40’s, or maybe 1950 or 1951. I was always tremendously interested in science and here I had a journal written by people who could write very clearly about science and do a good review of its fields in very interesting articles. I heard about Sigma Xi and I was reading how they were getting their readership not only from the academia, but also from the industrial labs.  I found that the people there are very much more alert and knowledgeable than they would be if they only just followed the literature of their discipline. Studying in other disciplines is what led me to do what I really wanted to do in neurophysiology, which was to make materials that could help me build a mechanical analog of a neuron, with synapses. And I was able to do that and this was the start of the information side of my work.

My work spread to the industrial sector as well as to the academic sector.  I could go to Ford Motor Company and give a talk and the people there were scientists from the lab, or involved with technology, and they showed great interest. I think that a magazine like the American Scientist is the best way of circulating ideas that are vetted by good people and cover important subjects, including the subjects that you have to take into account if you are doing new science and technology.

GPS: What is your favorite part of the American Scientist magazine when you get a new issue and you are paging through it?

SO: I read it from top to bottom and then I pass it around to the kids and other people that can be stimulated by it.  I am a very strong supporter of their organization, because it reaches a much wider audience.

GPS: So you get into the articles themselves and the short news stories?

SO: Everything!

GPS: Where would you like to see Sigma Xi in 25 years, or 125 years? You are giving them a message now that will outlast you and me. Where would you like to see them concentrate?  You can address both their strengths and weaknesses.

SO: You must get the children interested.  And you must be able to appeal to young people, even if they are growing up in deprived areas, and interest them in going to the proper grade schools, high schools, trade schools, community colleges or universities.  The problem with the underserved is the lack of opportunity.   I would like to see Sigma Xi be that instrument that goes where the others will not go, by starting scientific groups that can bring out the potential of people. I would foster the kind of lectures, visuals, or whatever is possible in the communication revolution that is now taking place.  We should all remember that innovation is usually not a product of giant institutions.  It comes from the outside, or peripheral, of the field itself.

GPS: Do you see Sigma Xi playing a strong role in making sure that science is part of our American culture and of civilization itself?

SO: Yes and it’s a tall order, but boy it will be fun trying to fill it.  Sigma Xi has been working on that ever since I discovered them around 1950.  I reacted to it, and there will be many others who will be touched by it, if they have the opportunity. What is lacking in our communities these days is opportunity. And, that is deadly to progress.

GPS: But, there could be a young person out there, or a young scientist, who picks up a publication from Sigma Xi and just reads it and is inspired or interested, just as you were.

SO: From my talks, I’m sure there is and reading American Scientist had a profound effect on me.  I was interested, so it hit the spot absolutely for me. I’m still learning, but I was able to work in other areas of physics and chemistry and disciplines, because I had a good grounding by my own self-education.  Education is so important wherever it comes from.  We need to bring up young people so that they want to understand science. Without an informed society, science is going to be considered an enemy.  Politicians will say that science is not their business, or question why we spend money on science when we can do this or that instead. It becomes a political part of society. We do not want to politicize science.

GPS: Did you attend Sigma Xi lectures when you were young?

SO: Not when I was young.  I went when I was already working on my inventions.  It was important for me to go to public lectures.

GPS: Did you give lectures yourself for Sigma Xi?

SO: I was invited to a couple of places and I spoke about whatever was of interest that they wanted me to speak about and I found it very satisfying.  I continue to speak on a broader base because an informed public is as necessary as informed scientists.

GPS: Thank you, again, Stan, for doing this interview.

SO: I feel honored for the interview. It was a great opportunity to have met you.

Greg P. Smestad, Ph.D.
Associate Editor, Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells
Principal, Sol Ideas Technology Development
P.O. Box 5729
San José, California 95150-5729 U.S.A.