A Rebel With A CauseDanielle Fong is just 27 years old. She’s also a scientist and a genius. With her startup, LightSail Energy, she’s saving energy - to save the world
THE RED BULLETIN: Your idea sounds pretty simple: you want to save energy through the compression and expansion of air. That’s more efficient than previously assumed. Does it really work in practice?
DANIELLE FONG: Yes. We have developed the most efficient air compressor in the world. We save energy by compressing air in a tank. The exact same machine transforms the compressed air into electric energy when needed.
Why is that so important?
The problem with renewable energies so far isn’t the production, but more the process of storing it. They are only available while they’re being produced. You only have wind energy when it’s windy. You only have solar power when the sun is shining. If we can store this energy cheaply and efficiently, we can change the world. Fossil fuels would dwindle in importance immediately.
What keeps you motivated?
The world needs this technology. Or a similar one. We’re pretty close to solving this problem, but we continuously have to work on a solution, day after day, as hard as we can. At the end of the day, it’s about saving the world.
Which qualities do you need for that?
You have to be innovative, disciplined and persistent.
Big things are not only reserved for a few. A lot of people can change something. I want them to realise that.
You dropped out of junior school to attend university at the age of 12.
Yes, the way I explain it is that I had to drop out because I had a terrible teacher. And then I found the right grade for me to be in, and it wasn’t grade 7, it was university. The other way to explain is that people, when they are really into something, learn it more than twice as fast. I was 12 instead of 18 when I went to college, so it is not actually that much faster. You have athletes who go down a hill twice as fast.
Was dropping out of school twice a sign of your rebellious side?
I don’t valorise the fact that I am a rebel. The truth of the matter is (pause) I have patience for people, but I don’t have patience for systems. I think a lot of people have a lot of patience for systems and they assume that is going to get them where they need to go and that things are going to work out. I just don’t think that is true in the world. I wasn’t rebelling for the sake of rebelling, but I felt like I saw the problems. Once you see the problems you can’t unsee them. I try to do something better, I don’t just complain. It is kind of a depressing way to be, to just see all the problems and not do anything. I’m like a rebel with a cause, I guess you could say.
So you want to be an inspiration.
I want to inspire action. I want to inspire people to try to do bigger things than they thought they could achieve, because they can.
By trying to be a role model. Part of it is telling people. There are so many ideas, you don’t need to search for an idea or come up with an idea, you just need to find it. If you observe problems in the world and you ask what are the root causes of those problems, then you can fix them. If you observe a powerful new technology, then you say, well what can we do with this? How can this affect the world, my life and the lives of so many other people? I want to show people that progress, I want to write about it, I want to speak about it. I think that is really critical. And I want the story to be known, and I want it to feel accessible. That is the biggest thing for me.
Who are your inspirations?
Elon Musk is incredibly hard working, super smart and super ambitious. He believes great things are possible and he has been very kind to LightSail Energy as well. The most inspiring thing about him is that he kept going, even when things looked most dire. He went all in because it was the right thing to do. Amelia Ehrhart is another. Most people don’t really understand the amount of inspiration people get from adventure and the amount of bravery that it took to be one of those early aviators. We have really taken the romance out of flying now. The first time anyone flew across the Atlantic it was unbelievably scary, and in fact Ehrhart died doing what she loved. The Wright brothers – perhaps Thomas Edison as well. Both the Wright brothers and Thomas Edison did so much with so little, it is just an incredibly powerful thing. The two Wright brothers were bike shop owners, who nobody would have bet on at the time. But they had passion, intense focus and effort. They had everything. They figured out wind tunnels, they studied gliding. They had this amazing process, that was completely uneducated really. And then flew around. Can you imagine the guts that took?
So the key not to be afraid.
Definitely. Don’t be afraid. At the time when these sorts of things were completely unknown, and also quite dangerous, the types of people who would do them, the sorts of bold moves people would make, are very different to today. I think we need more of that.
Why are Americans less afraid to take risks than Europeans?
We have a culture in the US, that if you fail, it is ok, but you’d better have tried. Failure isn’t ok unless you’ve tried because then it is just embarrassing. There is a structure that helps you know others who are trying great things, and some of them have succeeded, so that is a powerful thing. It is hard to say where the differences lie. Consumption may play a factor. Americans still aspire to have bigger cars and more houses, which is ok if you can afford it as a civilisation.
So who are the people who might save the world? Apart from yourself.
Elon Musk – he has somewhat experimentally learned how to build new industrial companies in the modern era. That is incredibly powerful and it has shown that we can still do this, and in fact we can do it better. He is clearly going to be a part of the energy transformation story. Bill Gates – he is doing amazing work fighting malaria, fighting polio. His foundation is extraordinary. At the moment he is the most prominent name in infectious disease. Craig Venter – he is also doing a project to prevent the spread of disease. It is an anti-viral project. The first person on Mars – this person is going to change the world. I don’t know if this is ever really going to happen, but if it does it will be amazing. I think that if we open up the frontier again, and really make it possible and economic to do it, then I think it will be absolutely transformative to all of consciousness: what we’re about as a civilisation. I think we would completely remove ourselves from the parochial concerns of nations and think greater. And I would like to be part of that.
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