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Stanford Ovshinsky, 'Edison of our age,' dies at 89

Self-taught scientist is credited with inventing the nickel-metal hybrid battery as well as a new class of semiconductors.

Stanford R. Ovshinsky, scientist and inventor.

Stanford R. Ovshinsky, a self-taught scientist who invented the nickel-metal hybrid battery and a new class of semiconductors, died Wednesday at age 89.

The cause of death was prostate cancer, according to his son, Harvey Ovshinsky.

Hailed in 2006 by Economist magazine as "the Edison of our age," Ovshinsky held more than 200 patents on a wide variety of pioneering products, from thin-film solar cells to hydrogen fuel cells. In the 1950s, Ovshinsky upset conventional thinking by rejecting the notion that only well-ordered crystals had useful electronic properties and suggested that so-called amorphous, or disordered, materials could be harnessed to construct semiconductors.

In 1960, he and his wife, Iris, formed Energy Conversion Devices to develop his discovery -- dubbed "Ovonics" -- to the fields of information and energy.

However, Ovshinsky's greatest consumer electronics contribution was perhaps in the form of the environmentally friendly nickel-metal hydride battery, which is used to power hybrid cars and portable electronics such as laptop computers, digital cameras, and mobile phones. In a partnership with General Motors, he developed the battery that powered the EV1, GM's electric car.

Born in Akron, Ohio, in 1922, Ovshinsky never attended college. Instead, studying at a one-room library provided the basis for his scientific literacy, leading him to become director of research at automotive and defense supplier Hupp Corp. at age 30.

Named "Hero for the Planet" by Time magazine in 1999, Ovshinsky was recipient of the German Inventors Association's Diesel Gold Medal in 1968 for his semiconductor discoveries. Despite ending his formal education in high school, he held numerous honorary doctoral degrees from universities around the world.

"He was the last of his kind," Harley Shaiken, professor of education and geography at the University of California at Berkeley, said in a statement that compared Ovshinsky to Henry Ford.