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Steam Punk Remakes Power Grid with Compressed Air

Danielle Fong was 12 years old when her mother decided she should go to college. Danielle’s teachers didn’t agree. Though an aptitude test put her above 99 percent of students who had already graduated from high school, her teachers said the move to college would ruin her education. But her mother sent her anyway. “Why would I conceivably put my child through six more years of that bullshit?” remembers Danielle’s mother, Trudy Fong, who was 15 when she herself went to college. “I didn’t bring my kid into the world to have her tortured — and be treated like dirt for being brilliant.”

Little more than a decade later — after graduating from Canada’s Dalhousie University and then dropping out of the Ph.D. program at the Princeton plasma physics lab when she decided academic research was as broken as grade school — Danielle Fong is the chief scientist and co-founder of a company called LightSail Energy. Based in Berkeley, California, this tiny startup is built on an idea that’s as unorthodox as Fong’s education. LightSail aims to store the world’s excess energy in giant tanks of compressed air. The goal is to plug these tanks into wind and solar farms, so that they can squirrel away energy for times when it’s most needed, much like reservoirs store rain water. The wind and the sun are prime sources of renewable energy, but they generate power unpredictably. LightSail’s compressed air tanks, Fong and company say, will make the power grid that much more efficient — and ultimately make the world a greener place.

In 2010, Danielle Fong and LightSail took their compressed air storage idea to the U.S. Department of Energy’sAdvanced Research Projects Agency, seeking a grant for their work. The agency turned them away, saying she and her team were unfit to manage a company, that the idea wouldn’t work anyway, and that her air compressor would likely explode. But like her mother, Danielle didn’t listen. Backed by $15 million in funding from green-minded venture capital outfit Khosla Partners and with a team of 32 employees, LightSail is pushing ahead with its plan to reinvent the power grid. Fong believes the potential market for compressed air tanks will exceed $1 trillion over the next 20 years. “People get skittish,” says Fong, who is now all of 24. “If you have your own resources and have a real effort, it doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks, in its knee-jerk, fight-or-flight response.”

In a way, Fong is going back to the future. Compressed air tanks have been used to store energy as far back as the late 19th century. They were installed in cities across the globe, from Paris to Birmingham, England to Buenos Aires. Germany has been using the technology for the past 30 years, and a power company in Alabama opened a facility in 1991. The idea is a simple one: If you have a power source — whether it’s gas or coal or renewable sources such as wind — you can use the energy to cram air into a tank. When the air compresses, it heats up, as we all know from high school physics — or just from pumping up a bicycle tire. Then, when you need the energy at some point down the road, this stored heat can be turned back into power. It’s a bit like coiling and releasing a spring. The rub is that you lose power with each transfer, and you lose heat when the air is in storage. Because it’s less than efficient, compressed air storage never caught on in a big way. Current systems often lose more than 50 percent of the power originally put into them, since they use the released energy to run a generator — which only loses more power.

Since the 1700s, scientists have struggled to store energy in more efficient ways, working to refine everything from Galvanic fuel cells to modern-day batteries. The question is always the same: How do we build a system that lets us storage energy and then retrieve almost all of it? But Steve Crane — LightSail’s CEO and a geophysics Ph.D. — says Danielle Fong has cracked at least part of the code. “It’s a little arrogant to put it this way,” he says, “but I think that Danielle has succeeded where Edison and others have failed.” The trick? Fong added water. LightSail’s prototype sprays a dense mist into the compressed air tanks, and this absorbs the heat produced during compression. Water can store heat far more efficiently than air, and with this mist, Fong says, the prototype more easily stores and releases power. It heats up the tanks to temperatures that are only about 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the environment, as opposed to several thousand degrees. The tanks are still pressurized to about 3,000 pounds per square inch — and Fong hopes to increase that amount — but since the power is stored at lower-temperatures, it’s easier to insulate the tanks. Some compressed air storage systems sit deep underground, taking advantage of the earth’s natural insulation, but LightSail’s tanks sit above ground, which is less costly. When you want the heat back, you just reverse the process, spraying the warm water out of the compression tank as the air expands, and it drives a piston to reproduce the power. But in both storing the heat and spitting it out, you need just the right amount of water. LightSail has tested nearly 40 nozzle heads — not to mention various tank designs — in an effort to achieve just the right mix. According to Fong, her system doubles the efficiency of compressed air, from about 35 percent to roughly 70 percent.

You might think of Danielle Fong as a real-life incarnation of Steampunk, that science-fiction literary genre that re-imagines Victorian technology in a post-apocalyptic future. The difference is that her prototype isn’t fiction. Fong’s original plan was to put her tanks into cars. She holds up Elon Musk, the founder of electric car pioneer Tesla, as a role model. “He was willing to go all out,” she says. But rather than equip cars with combustable engines or rechargeable batteries, LightSail planned to fill them with compressed air. The hot air would drive the pistons in a new breed of automobile engine.

But after a nudge from their backers, Fong and team decided that — whatever Musk has accomplished with Tesla — convincing old-school automakers to put these tanks into their vehicles was an almost insurmountable task. So she chose another almost insurmountable task: Reinvent the power grid.

The world is already moving to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar farms. But these don’t produce a steady stream of power. Some days you have sun, and some days you don’t. Plus, more power is typically consumed at night, when solar farms are no longer generating energy, so you need an efficient way of storing it. Fong envisions a power grid that behaves more like the internet, where resources are evenly distributed across the world and they can be readily accessed whenever they’re needed. Yes, the grid is fundamentally designed to distribute power to places of need, and we have “peaking plants” that only operate when additional power is required. But Fong hopes to provide a level of efficiency the world has never seen, especially in large countries like India and China, where power grids are less developed. “It dramatically makes it easier and more economical to do a network this way,” she says, “rather than in a way where your expensive assets have to be designed for the peak anticipated loads over the next 20 years.”

Is this doable? According to Samir Succar, a researcher at Princeton University’s Environmental Institute, compressed air storage could indeed improve the efficiency of wind and solar farms and other less-than-predictable energy sources. But he points out that wind and solar power still accounts for only a small portion of the power grid, and that compressed air doesn’t make sense for more traditional — and more predictable — sources such as coal and gas. “We just don’t have penetration rates that would require energy storage right now,” he says. What’s more, he says, power companies have little incentive to build energy storage centers — whether they use compressed air or some other technology. According to Succar, the power giants prefer to invest in technologies with a proven history, such as natural gas. What’s more, because compressed air can mean so many different things, it can be difficult for these companies to understand which technologies are the most efficient.

Tom Zarella — CEO of a competing compressed air outfit, SustainX — agrees that no matter how effective the hardware built by LightSail or his own company, the task ahead is immense. While some are pushing for greener forms of energy, the political and economic barriers aren’t exactly coming down. According to both Zarella and Fong, the collapse of solar outfit Solyndra — after it had won a $535 million U.S. loan guarantee — soured investors and turned the political discourse against alternative energy efforts.

“The moment of ‘Me Too!’ investing in clean energy — where people believe it is easy — is over,” Fong says. “We realize that.” But she says there are some basic realities that will float LightSail to the top: air is free, and it’s everywhere. Any country can use it without depending on another. She says that some of the company’s initial targets include Third World countries, isolated towns and islands that operate without power grids and depend on diesel generators and other local power sources. Much of the wattage generated by these sources is wasted, she says, and her compressed air tanks can turn things around. But she’s eying the United States as well. The Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently released a report saying about 75 percent of the United States is suited to compress air storage because it could accommodate buried tanks. But Fong doesn’t need to bury hers. She can put them anywhere.

“We know we can sell as many of these as we can make,” she says, insisting that by 2015, her company will be growing threefold every year. “This has never been achieved in any industrial setting. At all. But there’s no other possible energy storage solution that can do that. And if we don’t do it, pretty solid models about the climate — and the way the economy is going to go and what people will do with coal plants — will fuck the world.” Some may doubt whether all this will happen. And others may doubt whether Danielle Fong has the right plan to deal with it. But she’s used to that.

Source: http://www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2012/07/danielle-fong/

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The main goals of the 2045 Initiative: the creation and realization of a new strategy for the development of humanity which meets global civilization challenges; the creation of optimale conditions promoting the spiritual enlightenment of humanity; and the realization of a new futuristic reality based on 5 principles: high spirituality, high culture, high ethics, high science and high technologies. 

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The emergence and widespread use of affordable android "avatars" controlled by a "brain-computer" interface. Coupled with related technologies “avatars’ will give people a number of new features: ability to work in dangerous environments, perform rescue operations, travel in extreme situations etc.
Avatar components will be used in medicine for the rehabilitation of fully or partially disabled patients giving them prosthetic limbs or recover lost senses.


Creation of an autonomous life-support system for the human brain linked to a robot, ‘avatar’, will save people whose body is completely worn out or irreversibly damaged. Any patient with an intact brain will be able to return to a fully functioning  bodily life. Such technologies will  greatly enlarge  the possibility of hybrid bio-electronic devices, thus creating a new IT revolution and will make  all  kinds of superimpositions of electronic and biological systems possible.


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