Unlocking energy

- December 19, 2017

Alumnus and LightSail Energy co-founder Danielle Fong (Cody Pickens photo)
Alumnus and LightSail Energy co-founder Danielle Fong (Cody Pickens photo)

“I dropped out of grade 7,” says Danielle Fong (BSc’05). “I just decided at some point that the education system was absurd. It focused more on containing and indoctrinating young people than on encouraging learning, and I discovered that the doors were unlocked. I realized that everybody sitting around me was staying there of their own free will. I just couldn’t stand it, so I left.”

Within a year, Fong was enrolled at Dalhousie and on her way to earning first-class combined honours in physics/computer science. It was, Fong says, a far more enriching learning experience, thanks to professors such as Srinivas Sampalli and Jordan Kyriakidis, who “always treated me and all of their students with utmost respect,” Fong says.

“Their kind and clear manner always made me feel as if I were capable of understanding, doing, and creating historic things. There was no feeling of being lesser than them in working with them — rather, the feeling was of one traveling alongside them in a beautiful landscape, discovering things that, as far as we knew, might never before have been seen, reveling in the wonder and joy of it.”

Revolutionizing energy storage

Today, Fong is very much on the verge of doing something historic, something that could go a long way to saving the world, and us, from the ravages of climate change. As the co-founder and chief scientist of the Silicon Valley-based company LightSail Energy, she is leading the development of a potentially revolutionary method of storing energy in air and water.

With this, she says, “civilization can finally rely on sources of power like solar and wind, storing energy from sunny and blustery days efficiently and economically for times that are cloudy or still. With that, we can avoid burning fossil fuels almost entirely and avoid the environmental, geopolitical, and health consequences that imperil peaceful civilization.”

Fong has come up with an innovation that is helping to take air energy storage from the realm of the impractical and virtually forgotten to that of the highly affordable and possible. Fong theorized and then proved that, by using a fine, dense mist of water, heat energy created during the compression process can be captured for later use and reconverted into useful energy by reinjection during expansion. The stored power can then be fed into the power grid during times of high demand, and be delivered at a lower cost than traditional carbon-based energy.

“The thing that excited me the most about this particular technology is that it could solve the problem of energy storage,” Fong says. “Nobody really understood that until we proved it. Also, the fact that we built this system when others thought it was physically impossible to do it, that’s exciting. It’s strange, honestly, because the physical idea was so clear.

"After we had built everything, I got a chance to tell Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon.com) about it. He understood it in a flash. Called it brilliant, even. That was not our experience when we started. People find it hard to believe anything until it’s done I suppose, but maybe I’ve also gained some confidence and skill in learning to tell a compelling, truthful story.”

What kept her and the team going despite the skepticism? “The applications for a breakthrough energy storage system are literally revolutionary – think of how many wars are fought over oil and gas.”

“Harnessing the previously untapped potential of air…”

Fong says LightSail’s storage system, when configured appropriately, could power nearly all the energy needs of a city — from electricity, to heating and cooling, to powering vehicles.

“Heating and cooling actually emerges as an efficient byproduct of the process — it moves heat from where you don’t want it, like a refrigeration system, to where you do, like a home or an oven.” The energy density may even be good enough to power vehicles. “It will take an advance or two to really make something compelling for vehicles, but we’ll get there. It will be out of this world.”

Fong will demonstrate some of these capabilities back home in Nova Scotia, with the installation of a LightSail energy storage system at a wind farm near the site of the former Bowater Mersey Paper Mill.

“We hope it will mark an important point in history – a critical example of one of the first times a community can be economically and reliably powered using only the wind, harnessing the previously untapped potential of air,” Fong says.

Collaboration is key

The company, which has attracted investors such as Bill Gates and Peter Thiel, is the culmination of a lifelong fascination with energy. Fong recalls realizing, at the age of 18 months, that energy was both the first thing she needed to provide the communities she was creating in SimCity and the power source for the computer program that fired her imagination.

“I remember knowing that energy was behind a huge amount of technology that was quite extraordinary,” Fong explains. “There’s a lithium ion battery that fits in my pocket that is making it possible for us to communicate right now, even though we’re thousands of miles apart. This stuff was magic as a kid. It’s magic to us now, if we just spent some time paying attention to it.”

Fong has certainly given it considerable attention, enough that she is confident that LightSail’s energy storage system will address climate change.

“We as a species are going to solve this CO2 problem; I’m almost certain about that. The question is, where do we go from here? Do we expand what we take from our plant and each other, until, like microbes growing exponentially in a petri dish, we exhaust our resources and expire? Or do we learn from the upcoming transformation of our energy system, taking lessons on how to work together, to see into the future and to, collaboratively, make it better, not just on this planet, but into the solar system, and the stars?”

She realizes that she cannot take on the challenge alone. For that reason, she spends time aiding a new generation of like minds, providing support and mentorship to them, just as her Dalhousie professors stimulated her to do historic things.

“There’s a huge multiplying factor upon one’s effort to get a better world if you help people when they’re starting something,” Fong says. “They don’t have the resources when they’re starting. What they need is someone who has tread some of their path before, someone who understands what they are trying to do, to encourage them to do it, or to catch them if something’s going wrong. I try to provide that, along with a home, food, community, and if I can get it for them, funding, and will continue to do so, to the extent of my abilities.”

This article was originally featured on Dalhousie's Alumni website. Visit alumni.dal.ca for more stories.


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