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Danielle Fong wants to reinvent the power grid — using air.
“We are facing an enormous challenge globally — we are burning through our carbon budget and temperatures are steadily rising,” says the 27-year-old energy entrepreneur, who founded Berkeley, California-based LightSail Energy. Her solution: store excess energy in compressed air tanks.
“We need to store energy economically — batteries are too expensive and we are not close to the scale necessary to power the world,” she says. “Air is inexpensive and lasts a long time, compared to batteries.” If energy could be efficiently stored by this method, it could be plugged into solar and wind farms, where it would hoard and dispatch energy when the demand is higher.
In 2016, LightSail’s Regenerative Air Energy Storage (RAES) units will be deployed at a half-megawatt scale in California, Hawaii, Canada and the Caribbean, before 20MW units are rolled out in 2017. LightSail has also integrated its technology with software from Nova Scotia energy storage startup Unify Energy.
In 2016, they will deliver their first integrated storage system to the Liverpool Wind Energy Storage Project (LWES) in Nova Scotia — which will be the world’s first wind energy project coupled with compressed air storage.
Fong, who studied at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia at the age of 12, previously worked on nuclear fusion research at Princeton University, but felt it was moving too slowly.
“It seemed all the money was in Silicon Valley, so I dropped out and moved there to pitch my idea,” she says. It worked: so far she has raised $58 million (£38m) from investors including Vinod Khosla, Total Energy, Bill Gates and Peter Thiel.
The process uses the electricity from a power source to compress air and store it in a tank. To get energy back, it expands the compressed air from the tank, which drives a generator to produce AC power.
“Ordinarily, when you compress air, it gets so hot that you could not store or confine it — it’s 2,000°C when you compress at 200 atmospheres, so you lose a lot of energy,” Fong explains. “So we cool it during compression by spraying water into the air; that has the effect of capturing the heat.”
The warm water is sprayed back in when the air is expanded. This doubles the efficiency of this process.
“The energy space is a trillion-dollar industry in the making,” she says. “Governments will have to take notice. It could transform the world.”
Madhumita Venkataramanan is head of technology at Telegraph Media Group