Backed By Gates And Thiel, Danielle Fong’s Lightsail Sets To Revolutionize Energy Storage

Twenty-seven-year old Danielle Fong has big plans. Fong graduated from Dalhousie University with a degree in physics/computer science in 2005 at age 18, and started a PhD. program at Princeton’s Plasma Physics Lab in August of that year. After a couple of years in grad school, Fong realized that fusion power was still at least several years away and she wanted to do something to help the world’s energy problems right now.

The founding of Lightsail Energy

Fong left grad school and struggled to find herself and the right idea to make a difference for several months until the summer of 2008, when she hit upon the idea of compressed air energy technology. She threw herself into research on the subject, and had founded her company — Lightsail Energy — by the end of 2008. Lightsail got its first major funding in July of 2009, and Fong and colleagues had a functional prototype of her compressed air energy storage device by September of 2010.

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Danielle Fong and Lightsail present prototype to Bill Gates in 2011

Lightsail Energy reported that as of July 2011, all technical goals for prototype had been met. The next phase of the project was funding/market research, technical development and laying the ground work for product scale up.

When the word about Lightsail started to get out, even Bill Gates got interested and invested in the firm. He came to the company’s facility in Berkeley to take a look at the near-final prototype in May of 2011.

Backers of Fong’s start up include Bill Gates, French Energy giant Total, and the provincial government of Nova Scotia.

Partnerships and product development

Lightsail’s technology will receive its first real-world test at the former Bowater Mersey mill site in Brooklyn, Queens County, Nova Scotia, where ReNova Scotia Bioenergy Inc. will soon be building three wind turbines.

The former mill is also home to another clean energy business, CelluFuel Inc., which turns low cost wood fiber into renewable diesel fuel.

Danielle Fong’s Berkeley, Calif., company LightSail Energy will work with a Dartmouth-based firm to prove her compressed air energy storage technology over the next couple of decades.

Moreover, the power produced by the project will be fed into Nova Scotia Power’s grid.

“It works in the lab but we haven’t shown it to work in the field in an environment where cold weather occurs and we haven’t shown it to work where we’re harnessing the power of waste heat energy from woodchips or any other industrial source,” Fong said. “This will be a world first.”

The new compressed air energy storage system is anticipated to begin operations in early 2016.