by Matt Gallagher, Red Herring journalist
LightSail, an innovative Berkeley company that uses air compression, water droplets and some creative thermodynamics to store clean energy for the long term, has raised $37.3 million from none other than Bill Gates and Peter Thiel.
One of the biggest drawbacks of clean energy is that it comes and goes with the weather. Wind and solar energy cannot be easily stored for peak usage, limiting how much clean energy companies can charge for the energy they harvest. Current methods for capturing energy are complex. Pumped hydro uses mountain ranges that harness the energy through water that is pumped uphill during off-peak times, then allowed to flow downhill through hydro turbines, recapturing about 75 percent of the energy put in. Compressed energy storage, in which electrically-powered air compressors pump air into storage tanks which is then released to harness the electricity, only recover a small fraction of the energy used to run the compressors.
LightSail, on the other hand, solves the problems of compressed energy storage by combining air compression with water and creative thermodynamics. Tiny water droplets absorb and hold onto the heat created during compression. When the stored energy is needed, the same water droplets return the heat to the compressed air as it expands. As a result, about 70 percent of the stored energy can be delivered on demand. It’s much cheaper and you don’t need a mountain range, yet its efficiency is comparable to pumped hydro. Though the process is still in R&D, the company has managed to demonstrate a high-efficiency storage cycle at 100 kilowatt scale.
“We enable intermittent renewable energy sources to supply energy exactly when it is needed,” said Steve Crane, CEO of LightSail Energy. “The lack of this technology is what has been holding back the viability of wind and solar power. There is pent up demand for this technology at the right price point that is just off the charts. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The idea is the brainchild of Co-founder and Chief Scientist Danielle Fong, a Doogie Howswer-like prodigy who dropped out of her PhD program at the age of 17 to launch the company. She was recently featured in Forbes 30 Under 30.
Though pre-revenue, Crane expects the company to reach the break even point by 2015. Ultimately, he views LightSail as a billion dollar opportunity.
“The opportunity to solve the world’s energy problems quickly and cleanly is within our reach,” Crane said. “You can put this application down on a wind farm and immediately increase its revenue, or put it in a remote community and power an entire village. We have the essential technology that can seriously reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.”
Other investors included Khosla Ventures, which incubated the company and led LightSail’s earlier rounds, and Innovacorp. The new round brings the company’s total investment to $52.3 million
“For far too long, the clean tech industry has been driven by politicians and ideologues who trade people’s taxes for dreams,” said Peter Thiel. “But hype is not a sustainable energy source. While authentic energy breakthroughs are needed to overcome geological constraints, fraudulent companies have driven out the good. It’s time to find honest companies that can develop technologies that stand on real innovation instead of the backs of taxpayers. LightSail is run by engineers, not salespeople, and it promises to be one of the first true alternative energy storage companies.”
The company was founded in 2009.