“The Institute for Amorphous Studies,” reads the simple black-on-white sign at a former elementary school in the leafy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. The sign represents a bit of nerdish humor: The scientists and engineers working here know that it might prompt a visitor to imagine a new-age Silicon Valley–style think tank. But this is southeastern Michigan, and the sign is also serious, reflecting Stanford R. Ovshinsky’s discovery half a century ago of amorphous materials, the science at the core of such diverse products as nonvolatile memory chips, flat-panel displays, and rewriteable optical discs.
That discovery created an entirely new field of materials science, and Ovshinsky’s achievements have continued over the subsequent decades. Although his formal education ended with high school, he has written some 300 scientific papers; has more than 400 patents to his name for technologies that have improved daily life in myriad ways; and has been awarded dozens of honorary degrees, awards, and academic accolades. Now, at age 88, he has formed Ovshinsky Solar, a company with an audacious goal: to drive the unsubsidized cost of solar power below that of coal — to create, in effect, a Moore’s Law for energy.
The automatic response to a man late in his ninth decade announcing such an objective is disbelief, perhaps tinged with amusement. Certainly the doors of venture capital firms do not open readily to octogenarians, no matter how accomplished. But Ovshinsky has spent his entire career ignoring the naysayers, and time after time he has proved them wrong the best way he knows: by overturning conventional scientific wisdom, creating breakthrough technologies, and building things that work. In this new endeavor, feeling he has no time to waste, he has assembled a small team of scientific and engineering talent to make low-cost solar power a reality as rapidly as possible.
The Economist once called him “the Edison of our age,” and he has also been compared to Einstein. But Ovshinsky sees himself less as an inventor or a theorist than as a pragmatic problem solver. He views complex problems not as existential dilemmas or subjects for detached study, but as fundamentally comprehensible tasks lacking only an obvious solution. So global warming and foreign oil dependence are not cause for dissertations or despair, but simply tough equations to solve for multiple unknowns.
It was perhaps coincidental that amorphous materials science, Ovshinsky’s pivotal discovery, was equally suited to energy technologies, such as the nickel–metal hydride batteries in the Toyota Prius, and to computer applications, such as memory chips that retain their data after the electricity is turned off, both of which are his inventions. But that duality inevitably shaped his career and his world view.
“I picked energy and information as the twin pillars of our economy very early on, when I was quite young,” Ovshinsky says, touching on past times as a prelude to a proximate future. “If you change the energy equation to no use of coal and no climate change, you’re ending one era and opening an entirely different one. I’m an activist, but what I do is go out and do it, if I know how.”
Ovshinsky keeps his office in the former school’s library, and sits at a wooden desk surrounded by scientific texts and the scholarly journals he still reads and contributes to avidly. Pride of place here, and in nearly every room at the company, is given to a large chart of the periodic table of elements, which colleagues say Ovshinsky knows the way a master pianist knows the musical scales. Time after time, when those colleagues have reached an impasse, he will point to the table and remind them that the answers to their questions are all there.