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 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62(originally published by Booz & Company)


Stan Ovshinsky’s Solar Revolution

“It’s a maze of betrayal,” says Ovshinsky. “We had an agreement that if Texaco was bought out, we could withdraw, but they lied to us. They said, ‘We’ll support you, make it happen.’ Within months it was obvious they weren’t going to do that. As soon as possible they got me off the board.”

In fairness to GM, which has clearly made its share of mistakes, the arithmetic supports the company’s argument that the EV1 was not commercially viable at the time. GM based the leases for the EV1 on an initial vehicle price of US$33,995, with lease payments ranging from $299 to $574 per month, depending on state rebates. Industry analysts estimated the production cost of the car at as much as $100,000. In justifying its decisions, GM said some EV1 parts suppliers had quit, making it hard to guarantee future repairs and safety. Nonetheless, with the benefit of hindsight, and given the subsequent volatility of gasoline prices, some GM executives’ opinions of the EV1 have changed. Former chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner told Motor Trend magazine in 2006 that his worst decision during his tenure at GM was “axing the EV1 electric-car program and not putting the right resources into hybrids.”

The rest is history. Japanese automakers seized the lead in hybrid gas/electric vehicles using NiMH batteries, although only after Panasonic EV, a joint venture between Matsushita and Toyota, settled a patent infringement suit brought by Cobasys, the successor company to GM Ovonics.

His treatment by “Big Oil” chastened Ovshinsky and made him wary of corporate partners, but he pressed on to develop the missing components of what he came to call the hydrogen circle, by making it possible to use hydrogen to power automobiles and other vehicles. Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe and the most abundant potential source of clean energy; a car fueled by hydrogen is completely emissions-free. But on earth, all hydrogen is bound to other molecules. Separating hydrogen from carbon in fossil fuels, most commonly natural gas, requires reformation, which consumes energy and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating the global warming that hydrogen-based energy is supposed to ameliorate. Transporting hydrogen requires chilling it to liquid form, which is energy-intensive and expensive, or compressing it under high pressure, which is potentially dangerous and requires heavy tanks.

To produce abundant hydrogen gas that could be used to power vehicles, Ovshinsky invented a technology he named Ovonic BioReformation. It is a single-step reaction that produces carbonate, a solid widely used in industry, instead of CO2; takes place at low temperatures requiring less energy; and can be performed using a variety of fuels, including biomass. To tackle the transport issue, he developed low-pressure metal hydride containers, which absorb and release hydrogen like a sponge, and, for the U.S. military services, demonstrated a mobile refueling system requiring no costly infrastructure. This was typical Ovshinsky: No single invention stands alone.

The next step was to develop a new type of hydrogen fuel cell, a device that generates electricity through reactions between a fuel and an oxidant, triggered in the presence of an electrolyte. Ovshinsky’s fuel cell operated at lower temperatures than others, and without the costly platinum catalysts commonly used in these technologies. For those not willing to wait for fuel cells, he installed one of his metal hydride canisters in an ordinary 2002 Toyota Prius and ran the internal combustion engine on low-pressure hydrogen. Colleagues recall a visiting Toyota engineer looking on in disbelief until he finally cupped his hands beneath the exhaust pipe and tasted the pure water it emitted. Interest in hydrogen fuel cells has waned with the reduction in U.S. government research funds and with the industry-wide move toward electric vehicles and hybrids. However, some auto executives still insist the fuel cell is the technology with the greatest future potential.

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  1. Hellmut Fritzsche and Brian Schwartz (editors), Stanford R. Ovshinsky: The Science and Technology of an American Genius (World Scientific, 2008): An introduction to Ovshinsky’s key innovations and inventions, plus a selection of his most important scientific papers and a listing of his patents by subject.
  2. George S. Howard, Stan Ovshinsky and the Hydrogen Economy: Creating a Better World (Academic Publications, 2006): A detailed account of Ovshinsky’s quest to make hydrogen practical as a transportation fuel.
  3. Eric Spiegel and Neil McArthur, Energy Shift: Game-Changing Options for Fueling the Future (McGraw-Hill, 2009): An overview of the sweeping changes under way in power generation and transportation, and the challenges and opportunities that governments and businesses will face over the next two decades.
  4. Stan Ovshinsky’s Facebook page.
  5. For more on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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