By Joel Greenberg
If you had an opportunity to sit down and interview Thomas Edison, what would you ask him? That’s a similar position I found myself in at the recent NanoTX’08 conference in Dallas, TX. I asked Stanford Ovshinsky, founder of Energy Conversion Devices and Ovshinsky Innovations to sit down with me after he gave a keynote where we discussed, among other things, his plans for a 1 Gigawatt solar power plant that would produce electricity more cheaply than a coal fired plant.
Two years ago, the Economist asked if Ovshinsky wasn’t the Edison of our age.
Ovshinsky holds patents on NiMH batteries, those ubiquitous rechargeable cells. His solar cells powered the MIR space station and, as you’ll hear in the interview, he created a battery for the GM EV1 that had a range of 200 miles.
“To me life has to be art as well, and our culture, our civilization, should be accessible to everyone.”
We are at an inflection point in the history of energy—and potentially civilization—and Stanford Ovshinsky has been a key player in getting us here. Why listen? Because his ideas challenge the general public’s status quo thinking about energy and because he places science in the wider context of serving humanity. He gives us hope that we can solve our energy problems. For the historian, or the storyteller, Ovshinsky clarifies some contentious points in the electric vehicle story.
“Without an educated public you can’t make a revolution happen.”
But maybe even more importantly, Ovshinsky understands that everyone has a role to play, even non-scientists. That role begins with educating yourself on the issues. This interview may be a good, first step.
What does nanotech have to do with energy? Because nanotechnology is enabling many different energy devices, such as thin-film solar cells, or inexpensive fuel cell membranes.
Watch the full interview, above, or read an abridged transcript, below.
An Interview with Stanford Ovshinsky
Q: Would you please introduce your self.
A: I’m Stan Ovshinsky. I am a scientist and inventor. I work in the twin pillars of our global economy. I work in energy and information.
Q: You had talked about a 1 gigawatt solar plant. What’s the timeline for that first plant?
A: Well, right now, whatever I do, I like to show. I don’t like talking. In order to show, I do proof of principle. I’m sure it can work because I’ve built many photovoltaic production processes. And as soon as I finish that, I’ll build a large production machine.
Q: What are the stakes?
A: Well, you’ll have realistic proof of the economics—which would be making solar energy for the first time at lower cost, actually, than coal.
Q: You talked about replacing coal in the United States with solar.
A: Everything oil. Anything that has a carbon footprint can be replaced by solar. There is no pollution at all. No climate changing gases. No war over oil.
Q: That’ s a very large and audacious goal. Do you ever get overwhelmed by it?
A: No, because I’ve been doing it.
Q: GM said on one of their blogs that the reason they ended the EV 1 program was inadequate batteries.
A: Not true. People talk about batteries now that run electrics 40 miles, are 80 miles. The first one I made for them went 200 miles – the very first one. They had an internal change of policy. That’s their right and they didn’t do it. And then they crushed the cars, as you know.
Q: So, 200 miles is an amazing number
A: Two hundred one, actually. I had an agreement that if I failed they could go on to describe it publicly. Of course they never did describe it publicly. So by the time they put it into production they dropped the mileage somewhat, quite a bit actually, down to about 125 – 150 miles. But, my first runs that were being tested were 201 miles to be exact. But I don’t think we ought to be living in the past with them, they’re trying desperately now to get back into the electric vehicle business.
Q: Why aren’t we hearing more about these high capacity, metal hydride batteries?
A: I think we at ECD we made a mistake of having a joint venture with an oil company, frankly speaking. And I think it’s not a good idea to go into business with somebody whose strategies would put you out of business, rather than building the business.
Q: So it’s your opinion that Cobasys is preventing other people from making it for that reason? [Background: Cobasys, a joint venture at various times between Chevron/Texaco, GM, & Ovshinsky Conversion Devices, holds the patents on NiMH batteries for electric vehicles, for example, the Toyota RAV 4 EV. Current Rav 4 EV owners are looking to replace their existing battery packs because they are at their end of life, but can’t, because Cobasys will not manufacture them. Cobasys has actually sued Panasonic to prevent them from from manufacturing the batteries, leading to widespread criticism in the electric vehicle community that an oil company has co-opted their competition. See Wikipedia entry on Cobasys for details.]
A: Cobasys is not preventing anybody. Cobasys just needs an infusion of cash. It builds a great battery. If I had had my way—and if people in the industry had listened—I had two next generation batteries, one under test that was doing very well and one being developed—would have made them not taking the chances that they are now with lithium. But I invented the batteries and I have no ownership in any case, anymore . But I would’ve liked to and will probably will in the future…I would rather be a resource to General Motors . I’m not trying to be a critic.
Q: What advice can you give people in starting a company?
A: Well, build a new society in your company, one that you don’t pigeonhole people, but you bring out the potential in people, where you’re the leader only by example and not by dictum. Don’t fill it full of bureaucracy because bureaucracy always has a life of its own. Committed people can be excited and dedicated—and not just another job—because changing the world for the better is a struggle that goes beyond our lifetime. Hopefully everybody else coming after us will still try to do that. But it’s going to be harder to change after about 20 or so years [due to climate change].
And to me life has to be art as well, and our culture, our civilization, should be one accessible to everyone. I’m not trying to compete with anything, or anybody. I’m trying to compete with fossil fuel because it’s dangerous and has to be changed and if we don’t do it nobody else will, the people who care. But I really feel that its something that the public that you represent should be knowledgeable because the stuff that you hear on the radio and on the various chat groups—there’s so much this isn’t right—that without an educated public you can’t make a revolution happen.
Q: What are the lessons to be learned for younger scientists, then?
A: I’m still 19 years old as far as I feel about science and technology. I’m very excited by it. But I’m also motivated by a strong social consciousness—which I don’t find a lot of outside of groups that I have built in the past—that science and technology has to NOT be value free, but to solve serious societal problems. Obviously, climate change if you don’t do anything about it—is in 20 years—it’s going to change the planet irreversibly and terribly. As I said, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists now puts it to the same power as civilization, so to speak, ending with atomic warfare.
End of Part 1.