Not bad for a middle-school dropout — except that this dropout entered college at the age of 12, graduated with honors at 17 and then proceeded to join a Princeton Ph.D. program in the Plasma Physics Lab.
Now 24, Fong ditched Princeton after realizing that many of her brilliant professors were spending all their time seeking funding for research. “I figured I’d make my fortune first and then fund my own research,” Fong said during an interview with Forbes’ Michael Noer.
Her company, LightSail Energy, is working on technology to create easier storage of energy created from renewable resources.
“We’re tackling what some call the holy grail of green energy: how to economically and efficiently store energy such that intermittent renewables such as solar and wind can reliably and economically power our electrical grid,” Fong tells MNN.
To do that, Fong and her team hope to store energy using compressed air. On the conceptual level, that idea works but on the practical level, there are several obstacles.
The overriding problem in using compressed air for energy storage is the high temperature produced during the compression and expansion process.
“Hotter air is at a higher pressure, and requires more energy to compress the same charge of air into a given volume,” Fong explains. “When the air cools, the pressure diminishes and accessible energy is lost. This is the main inefficiency with previous attempts at air energy storage.”
Fong’s concept, and the process used at LightSail Energy, is to spray a fine mist of water during the compression or expansion process. The water captures the heat, keeps the temperature at a constant low level, and can be held in a water tank or routed into a building for usage.
The process is called regenerative air energy storage, or RAES for short, because it regenerates usable energy from the heat generated during compression. This bonus output nearly doubles the efficiency of compressed air storage to 70 percent in both directions — compression and expansion.
Impacting a billion dollar industry
The implications of this new energy storage technology are staggering. According to LightSail’s website, over the next two decades, close to $14 trillion is expected to be spent on electric infrastructure upgrades worldwide. Fong and her associates believe that with lower costs for storing and delivering off-peak energy on demand, the energy landscape can change dramatically.
Currently, inefficient diesel and gas peaker plants supply electricity during the times of greatest demand, and are underutilized during non-peak times. Low cost energy storage can increase grid utilization without the need for expanding power plants or adding grid lines.
Education at the heart of world change
Earlier this year, Fong was elected to become a mentor for the Thiel Fellowship, an organization that encourages lifelong learning and independent thought.
“There are many growingly successful efforts in education that I’ve been excited by recently,” says Fong, “They have a common theme — students taking responsibility for learning.”
Khan Academy, peer instruction, cooperative learning and "unschooling" stand out as exemplary educational concepts to Fong. “The truth is that the world’s knowledge is available at your fingertips,” she says. “We should expect a similarly radical improvement in education, when students can learn whatever they like, at any time. The right way forward is to teach kids how to learn outside of school.”
Given Fong’s propensity for learning, it’s likely she will be part of that movement for a long time.
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