How to Do Energy Storage on a Massive Scale

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Meet Danielle Fong, co-founder of LightSail Energy.

Danielle Fong is not one to make things easy for herself. At 12, she dropped out of middle school and... went to college. After finishing up at Dalhousie University, she enrolled in a Princeton PhD program at 17, where she wanted to work on perhaps the world's most perplexing energy technology: nuclear fusion. Finding that wanting, she went looking for a new challenge and ended up co-founding LightSail Energy.

The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal in conversation with entrepreneurs shaping our future. See full coverage

LightSail makes what sounds like the world's least sexy product: a new kind of air compressor. But compressed air could be the key to storing electricity on the very large scale required by utilities. And that, as it turns out, would be a key advance in creating a new energy system based on intermittent sources like wind and solar.

I saw the LightSail prototype in their old offices in an old fire station in Oakland's Chinatown. (They've since moved on to a larger space, a former chocolate factory in Berkeley.) There's not much to differentiate it from any other piece of industrial equipment, but few makers of traditional air compressors get backing from Khosla Ventures and TriplePoint Capital.

Previous compressed air systems lost the vast majority of power that you could put into them. But LightSail says their system can return 70 percent of the power that's put into it back to the grid. That'd be as effective as the current best solution (literally pumping water up a hill, then releasing it back through turbines) but with less restrictions. The key to their technology is the simple addition of a fine mist of water during the compressor's operation; the key to their business is proving that their technology works the way they say it does.

Stay tuned for the next two segments of my interview with Fong, which will debut next week.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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