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


Stan Ovshinsky’s Solar Revolution

Characteristically, Ovshinsky says he has found a way to push both parameters at once, and by significant amounts. “Our technology is a transformational advance in photovoltaics, combining higher conversion efficiency with 100-fold faster deposition rates,” he says. Indeed, his tiny pilot plant recently achieved this milestone, sustaining a deposition rate of more than 300 angstroms per second, compared with 1 to 5 angstroms per second in state-of-the-art commercial photovoltaic processes. That increase alone would allow the building of a 1-gigawatt capacity plant, but Ovshinsky says he will also soon announce a commensurate increase in conversion efficiency from the current level of about 10 percent.

Ovshinsky Solar currently has eight employees, all of whom had been at ECD for 25 years or more. They work in a tiny unmarked lab packed with elaborate instrumentation and prototype vapor deposition equipment of their own devising. A convoluted maze of stainless steel, the apparatus looks like a science fair project on steroids. The company has 14 patents pending, with more in the pipeline, but until they issue, Ovshinsky explains that he has to remain circumspect about exactly what he is doing. The breakthrough, he says, rests on the invention of an entirely new amorphous material — not a refinement of something he has done before — adding that his aha! moment came when he looked beyond the narrow science of solid-state physics as practiced today, much the way he did 50 years ago with the discovery of amorphous materials. “If you’re going to do something new, you have to overlap fields,” he says. “God didn’t make disciplines; man did.”

The capital sums Ovshinsky is seeking are not big relative to the billions that venture capitalists are throwing at green energy startups, but he says he is not looking to them as investors. “Why don’t I go to the venture capitalists? They don’t care about the achievement; they care about getting out of it at the right time,” he says. “I think countries are better. All they want is for you to build the machines. I prefer to get money from groups that want to answer the problem, and that understand that it has to be revolutionary.”

Ovshinsky won’t say which governments he is talking to about funding, but a glance at his calendar shows that he has been traveling a great deal, particularly to China. Chinese solar panels accounted for about half of total worldwide shipments in 2009, and that share is expected to grow. “China is doing the right things,” Ovshinsky says. “They have lots of good people, and they have a plan for energy. We do not have a plan for energy.”

Silicon Valley venture capitalists say that although Ovshinsky’s achievements are well known to them, so is his reputation as a difficult partner for investors. And they caution that he would find Beijing and Sichuan investors no easier to work with than venture capitalists in northern California.

“No matter what he’s come up with, people will pay attention because he has a track record of some pretty impressive breakthroughs,” says Sunil Paul, founder of Spring Ventures, a San Francisco–based fund that invests in and incubates clean-energy technologies and companies. “But Stan does have this complicated reputation; you want him to be Edison, but there’s a risk he’ll end up being Buckminster Fuller.”

For longtime participants in the solar industry, Ovshinsky’s ability to deliver a breakthrough technology is not in doubt, despite the magnitude of the advance he is claiming. They say the economic and environmental case for low-cost solar power is so compelling that it is almost inevitable but building a 1-gigawatt machine is only the first step in a long road to market. “I don’t know what technology he’s using, but it’s not something we know anything about,” says Travis Bradford, author of Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry (MIT Press, 2006). “It’s not a current-generation technology. And that next gen is five to 10 years away. Then there are business model problems, even if he can build a gigawatt line.”

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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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