The five most disruptive technologies of 2012 – Christopher Mims via Quartz

The world’s most cost-effective energy storage


The story of LightSail Energy is a litany of surprising facts. In a field dominated by male engineers, its founder, Danielle Fong, is a 24-year-old woman who dropped out of both middle school and (later) a PhD at Princeton. And the company’s technology takes an energy storage technique no one thought was workable—compressed air—and adds a simple physical trick inspired by something Fong read in a century-old book. The problem Fong solved is that, due to basic physics, when air is compressed, it gets hot, up to 1,000°C. That means most of the energy that could be stored in compressed air is lost as heat. Fong’s solution was to add a fine mist of water to air as it’s being compressed, and then to recover that water and use it to store the heat energy generated.

The result, LightSail claims, is a technology as efficient as batteries—it will supposedly return up to 70% of the energy put into it—but significantly cheaper. This combination of price, simplicity and build-it-anywhere flexibility has attracted investors like Bill Gates and, in the company’s $37.5 million Series D financing round, the investor (and PayPal co-founder) Peter Thiel, who usually makes a point of avoiding clean energy.

LightSail sells its technology not merely as a way to store renewable energy for when it’s needed, but also as a way to displace a lot of the new power plants and electricity transmission infrastructure that the world has planned. The idea is that putting affordable energy storage exactly where it’s needed could eliminate spending on both, regardless of whether the energy is being produced by renewables.

Note that efficient compressed air technology is also key to the Tata Airpod, which is a possible breakthrough in transportation (see Tata Airpod).

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