Energy Conversion Devices: the other story

For many years of its history, Energy Conversion Devices had more cleantech and related business going on than this blog has categories for. The 51 year-old company filed for bankruptcy on Valentine's Day, after having failed to generate sufficient revenues from its main business, United Solar Ovonics. Tech writers are focusing on the Solar part of the tale, which is understandable because it neatly fits into a pattern of high-cost solar makers taking a tumble in the face of low-cost Chinese competitors. But what I found fascinating about the firm is the part referred to as Ovonics. The word Ovonics was coined by ECD's founder, Stanford R. Ovshinsky. He took the first two letters of his name and added the end of electronics to create a sort-of blanket term describing the way a bit of energy can convert amorphous and disordered materials into structured crystalline materials. It also covers the reverse process. The various energy and information applications that Ovshinksy put his inventive mind to include nickel-metal hydride batteries, LCD screens, read-write CDs, amorphous silicon thin-film solar material (and a nifty machine to make it), hydrogen fuel cells, and phase change electronic memory. It would be hard to imagine American life without many of these technologies - and some are still to come. He is considered a Hero of Chemistry by the American Chemical Society. At 88 years old, he is still inventing at his new company Ovshinsky Innovations (he left ECD in 2007). The curious part of the tale is that Ovshinsky is self-taught - he didn't go to college or graduate school. And his inventions began with research on energy and information that he pursued in the 1950s and 60s. ECD started out as a laboratory - founded in 1960 - before it became a company. Even as a business, it ran more like a stand-alone research laboratory - think Bell Labs or Xerox labs without the rest of the corporation. The company brought in money by doing everything other than making and selling products - it had equity investors, research grants, and many collaborations along with a bit of licensing revenue. It seemed to be always on the cusp of the big time, but it was ahead of its time. In some ways it was both ahead and behind at the same time. It had already licensed  the nickel-metal hydride rechargeable battery years before it powered the Toyota Prius. Now electric cars will have lithium-ion batteries. ECD made thin-film solar that would find a niche in building integrated photovoltaics, but that niche still is not large enough to save the solar business. Yet its cost structure still belongs to the solar industry of five years ago. Ovshinsky was also ahead of his time when he focused his work on renewable energy to break the world's dependence on petroleum. I don't know ECD intimately but as an outsider, it seems that the company likely lost its driving force when it lost Ovshinsky five years ago. The management wanted to concentrate on making the company profitable - so it focused on solar energy, which was experiencing a boom. That was a bet that did not pay off.

Author: Melody Bomgardner

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