Insights by Danielle Fong

notes from a girl from the future

Category: Self-referential

‘Ecopragmatist’ — Danielle Fong as interviewed by Dalhousie University

One month ago, I was interviewed by Jane Affleck as a profile piece for my Alma Mater, Dalhousie University. Unfortunately, long form responses weren’t quite what they were looking for — so I posted them here!

Jane: You “started” a PhD at Princeton… why did you stop? Was it boring? Did you feel driven to just do your own thing?

Danielle: I was more temperamentally suited towards my own thing – though that was only part of it. I entered a program in Plasma Physics to focus on fusion energy – the process that powers the sun. I thought that with a few good ideas, we could produce electricity more inexpensively than, say, planet-smothering, lung-blackening, mercury spewing coal.

Diptych - The JET Tokamak Fusion Reactor / Filled with Plasma

I guess I became disillusioned. The objective of fusion power is primarily to create a very inexpensive heat source. The reason people believed so strongly in fusion energy is that the fuel is practically free – unlike, say, coal. Unfortunately, we haven’t figured out how, even in principle, we might build a reactor that doesn’t wear out rapidly over time. Since you expend the reactor, it is most properly thought of as a kind of fuel. And if you consider the cost of ultra-high tech fusion reactors, versus pulverized coal, it looks like coal is going to be much cheaper.

I saw the technical work stretching out, endlessly before me, with no clear fix for our energy problem within sight. I got spooked.

There might be ways to solve these problems, but they certainly weren’t known.

I didn’t think the right things were getting funded. I saw my professors – brilliant scientists – spending most of their time in a struggle to acquire funding, rather than doing research. I thought there was a better way.

I came to Silicon Valley with the intention of making my fortune, and then funding research. After about nine months, I found myself compulsively doing energy research again, but this time, focusing on how to best harness and make use of energy from that great, fusion reactor in the sky, our sun.

Jane: On your Google profile, you call yourself an “ecopragmatist.” What does that philosophy mean on a day-day-basis, in your work and overall outlook?

Danielle: Environmentalism is a morality, or a philosophy. Ecopragmatics is a discipline.

Environmentalism, as a movement, achieves its greatest successes in raising awareness. Despite the fact that we live on this earth, cohabitate with nature and depend on nature for the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the land we live on, for the microbes that pervade and defend and compose us, and despite the fact that being close to nature brings people joy, people have become strikingly unaware of their environment, of the flora and fauna within it. Environmentalists have made personal and tangible, the plight of ecosystems worldwide.

Where environmentalism fails is in its mythology; both in the mythology it has developed and promoted, and the mythology of greater society that it fails to deconstruct.

Environmentalists – and I realise I am over generalizing here — imagine that we human beings are apart from, and the scourge of, pristine nature, and that to save it, we must depart from it.

I do not believe human civilization is apart from nature in any crucial quality any different from an ant’s colony, a beaver’s dam, or a coral reef. Collective beings, using whatever tools and artifice at their disposal, have for millions of years altered their environments, and adapted to fantastically diverse environments. Our artifice is no different in kind; save perhaps, a degree of understanding and intention, and a means of development within generations, and a mechanism for sharing – language, to pass our tools between generations.

What is most astonishing about the rise of humanity is not its use of tools, not its use of language, not its environmental cultivation. It is the scope.

We have spread to almost every ecological niche of the planet. Humans consume one quarter of the enter base of the food chain, either directly or indirectly.

Less than one quarter of the world’s ice free land is wild, and only 20% of this is forests – wildlands account for only 10% of the primary production – or plant life – on the planet.

During the reign of our influence, 40% of the world’s phytoplankton, representing 20% of the world’s plant life, and 20% of the oxygen in the atmosphere, has disappeared over the past half century.

Under our influence the world has changed faster, more widely, and more profoundly than since phytoplankton drove the atmosphere from methane to oxygen. It is not that our changes are distinct from those of nature; there are plenty of creatures that change their environment far more that we change ours. But we have done so within a few hundred generations, at a planetary scale.

Pristine nature is a myth. Mankind has already profoundly changed the planet; every acre of it feels our climatic influence. We coexist. We are in nature, the question is how to live within it.

Environmentalism fails us here, because it stresses the difference of our influence, rather than its scope. Environmentalism is unwilling to consider small sacrifices which might undermine the purity of nature – hoping to preserve untouched ecologies from our desecrations, and yet even preserved land, as the famous Nature Conservancy has discovered, cannot escape our global influence. We worry about the little things; the spotted owl, the desert tortoise. And yet all around us, the world is undergoing – has undergone – a paradigm shift. As the great Paul MacCready states,

10,000 years ago, at the beginning of civilization, the human portion was less than one tenth of one percent. […] Humans, livestock and pets are now 97 percent of that integrated total mass on earth and all wild nature is three percent. We have won. The next generation doesn’t even have to worry about this game — it is over. And the biggest problem came the last 25 years: it went from 25 percent up to that 97 percent. And this really is a sobering picture in realizing we, humans, are in charge of life on earth, we’re like the capricious Gods of old Greek myths, kind of playing with life, and not a great deal of wisdom injected into it.

Nature vs Humans. Biomass of Wild Air and Land Vertebrates vs Human, Livestock, Pets

Ecopragmatism rejects the myth that the wild is endless, the oceans an infinite bounty. We recognize that the needs of mankind must coexist with the health of our planet, and that it will take sacrifices on both sides, from nature and civilization, to achieve peace – we advocate for both sides at the negotiating table. Ecopragmatism accepts that we must overcome ideology, and enforce discipline – that we must work hard, combine ecology with economy, and, as inventors and influencers, accept human nature, and create solutions that make the easy choice the right choice, allowing even the greediest or neediest of people to work toward a healthy world.

Ecopragmatism recognizes that we are now the earth’s gardeners. The earth is now shaped by our whims. We must accept the responsibility that comes with power, and consciously guide planet growth, with wisdom, courage, and decision, toward a thriving, sustainable future.

Jane: You’re the “Chief Science Officer” with LightSail Energy. What that involve? What’s a typical day for you (if there is such a thing as “typical”)?

Danielle: LightSail Energy is a green energy startup company that’s trying to make it possible, and economical, to power the world with nothing but clean, green energy. We’re tackling what some call the holy grail of green energy – how to economically and efficiency store energy such that intermittent renewables such as solar and wind can reliably and economically power our electrical grid.

Two days of output and wind speed from a four section wind farm. See the sudden drop? That's why we need energy storage if wind is to be a major part of our grid.

To do this, we’re taking compressed air, an elegant technology from a more civilized age, and using it to store energy. Compressed air is already considered to be the most inexpensive method for storing energy. Our objective is to make it more efficient.

When you compress air, what you’re really doing is converting mechanical energy into heat energy, inside the air. Conversely, when you expand air, you’re converting the heat energy in the air to mechanical energy. The amount of energy converted, for a given mass of air, is proportional to the temperature of the air.

The trouble starts when the air is compressed. To achieve a high energy density, compressed air energy storage systems compress to more than 100 times atmospheric pressure, or higher. In doing so, the air reaches extremely high temperatures, nearly 1000 C. This is too hot to manage practically, and so the air is compressed in stages, rejecting heat to the atmosphere after every stage.

By rejecting heat to the atmosphere, you lose the energy you’ve stored. Conventional systems add heat back by burning natural gas, but that still presents both a carbon footprint and inefficiency.

We have a different approach. By spraying water into the air during compression, most of the heat goes into the water, rather than the air. And water has a much higher capacity than air – 3300x at standard conditions. You don’t need to spray in much before what would have been a temperature rise of, say, 800 degrees C, becomes a temperature rise of around 20 C – much more manageable. We can then just hold on to the water, and the heat in a tank. We then spray the water back in during expansion, recovering the heat energy and converting it back into mechanical energy. We then convert the mechanical energy to electrical energy, using a motor generator.

There isn’t a very typical day at LightSail, but I often begin my day with coffee and breakfast with my cofounder, Steve Crane – a lapsed Caltech geophysicist who found himself first in the 3D graphics industry, and then the entertainment business, responsible for some of the biggest hits in history. He tried to hire me for a videogame startup; I ended up convincing him to join me as cofounder, and funding our first efforts through the sale of a house. We talk about everything. We talk about our technical challenges; the engineering and testing effort, the physics, we (try to) invent solutions to the challenge of the day, we try to figure out how to make our team as happy and effective as can be, we discuss the broader implications and applications of our technology, we talk about our philosophy, and duty as a company, and we talk about the world at large; everything from oceanography to filmmaking to dancing to the philosophy of science to the finer points of Italian cuisine. We’ve become best friends.


Then it’s off to the lab – a converted historical Firehouse in Oakland’s Lake Merritt/Chinatown district. Our laboratories occupy the bottom two floors. In the bottommost floor we have a test cell with a control center behind bulletproof glass (just in case), a machine shop with a CNC-mill, and an assembly and quality control room. In the stable (the fire engine used to be drawn by horses) we have a laser lab for imaging sprays, and a conference room. The tower where they used to dry the canvas hoses has been converted into an exhaust manifold, outfitted with a muffler and a heat exchanger. We converted the hayloft to our electronics lab, and upstairs are our main offices.

We’re a little jam-packed in there. There are nearly 30 of us in total, so we’re moving to our new facilities (a 25,000 ft2 former chocolate factory) in October. Until then, we’ve got our design room in the fire captain’s quarters, our experimentalists, electricians and technicians in the living room/kitchen/dining area, and our CTO and third cofounder, Ed Berlin, in a bedroom he’d converted to an electrical lab. The remainder are scattered throughout the machine shop, hayloft, and much of the analysis and business team (which includes Steve and I) reside in a penthouse in a second building across the street.

(I should mention that both Steve and Ed were prodigies in physics and engineering to the same extent that I was. Steve won his first research grant at 13, and entered MIT at 16; Ed, another MIT grad, built his first circuit at 3 and won the engineer of the year award from Grumman Aerospace – a 30,000 person company, mind you, at 21. People make a big fuss about me entering college at 12, but it was mostly that I had to find somewhere other than my dysfunctional middle school after dropping out. Plenty of other people could – and have – done it.)

The heart of the company is really the test cell, and we have a ‘driver’ from the racing industry (actually he focused on dynamometer tests, never racing in a car!) running most of the full-scale system tests. There’s a desk full of screens and controls, and one graph in particular, the pressure volume curve, draws particular interest from our theorists, and passersby.

If the test cell is the heart of the company, the whiteboard in the dining room area is the head! We often start discussions there, and people will drop in as they overhear and contribute. Our technical discussions can get quite intense, and we calculate much of what we need to make decisions by hand, in real-time, to verify the contentions and work that happens at our desks. All of our management comes from a deeply technical background, we all get our hands dirty, and we all dig into things and calculate them ourselves; especially with the most important technical decisions. There’s some replicated work, true, but we’re fast, and this gets us all on the same page. It helps to have generalists!

I’ll walk around the company, checking up on progress and issues, checking in to see if I can help people do their jobs, or if people are stuck, or need someone else to do something first to make progress. We spend a lot of time making sure people understand everything, and making sure that internal communication is handled correctly – it’s hard to get 30 people on the same page all the time! To that end, we get everyone lunch on Thursdays, which we have called “stupid question day.” Everyone is encouraged to ask their stupid questions – and people are obliged to answer them graciously!

Some days, we interview candidates. Our interviews are pretty comprehensive. We give a tour and the hiring manager introduces the position and the company. For most positions, we ask that people give a presentation on their previous work/explorations/education, and we ask lots of questions. Many people interview the candidate, and in the process we give both an in-person and a take home exam. The in-person exam involves much at the whiteboard, and sometimes we get people into the lab and have them solve an experimental puzzle and describe their solution. We have a world class team; the best that any of us have worked with.

I’ll return to my own desk at some point, and answer a slew of emails. Internal communication is critical! Then, every day, I’ve made a pact to myself to do at least one hardcore engineering thing – either in analysis, or making a spec, or designing a new experimental approach, or inventing something practical.

Maybe I’ll bike back, or grab dinner with Steve or friends. The evening and night are for big picture thoughts, and maybe a little music (I love my keyboard and guitar)

Then it’s to bed, and then, another day!

Jane: Would you have imagined five years ago that you’d be where you are now (career-wise)? Why or why not?

Danielle: I always thought I’d be working on my own projects, specifically in energy, but I fluctuated between thinking I’d do it within a university or my own company. It turned out that starting a company was right for me, at this time, with what I wanted to do!

Five years is a while ago now!

Honestly, despite the challenges and struggles I remember (among them, coughing my guts out before a critical presentation for us to raise our first bit of money during the financial crisis), I was surprised that it was this easy. Or maybe easy is the wrong term. I was surprised that it felt this right, at every step. There were no agonizing decisions. I went with my gut, and I am happy where I am.

Jane: What do you remember most about Dal’s Physics and Atmospheric Science program? What do you remember most about being at Dal? (i.e., “best” memories of both)

Danielle: I brought a friend of mine to the physics phyridays one summer. He couldn’t help but exclaim, while watching the players of hacky sacky, Frisbee, soccer, etc, watching the barbeque, and the liquid nitrogen shots, that the strangest thing about physicists was how *physical* we all were.

So those are my favourite memories: my friends and classmates camping, playing games, and being happy and young and brilliant and free.

I also fondly remember working with Jordan, my advisor, who really taught me a lot about how to *think* about science, and prowling around the labs, asking what people were doing, and naively offering to help.

Also – I loved the candy room. Whoever thought of putting a candy room right next to my office is an evil genius, and I offer kudos.

Jane: What was your biggest challenge while studying Physics and Atmospheric Science? How did you overcome it?

Danielle: The biggest challenge for me was balancing the wonder and curiosity that I had for the fundamentals of physics (and whatever question happened to interest me at the moment) and staying studious. You’d hope that doing one’s homework, and trying to get at fundamentals would be equivalent, but unfortunately not. Trying to understand why processes can be thermodynamically irreversible, yet are governed by fully reversible physics, isn’t something that helps you (much) in doing homework. Nonetheless, you need to do both to really grow as a scientist. I use the knowledge in from both my more disciplined physics training I received at Dal, and my personal investigations, every day. Dal gave me a lot of freedom to explore what I wanted to explore, but being the somewhat undisciplined person I am, I still found it hard to steadily “be a good student” when other inspirations stuck me!

Jane: Do you remember any particularly encouraging advice from profs, or any who were particularly inspiring because of their research interests or their engagement with teaching/students?

Danielle: There were so many! Jeff Dahn plucked me out of the giant Physics 1100 class and introduced me to physics research. His classes were also hilarious, which helped! My advisor Jordan Kyriakidis taught me so much of what I know about the scientific method, and rational thinking in general, and then set me loose on a bunch of incredibly interesting problems – some of which still bedevil me! Stephen Payne put up with my many questions about thermodynamics, and I credit much of what I finally understood – and what I put into practice at LightSail, to him. Andrew Rutenberg encouraged me to go to graduate school, and really got me thinking about my career path. There are so many more – I really enjoyed David Tindall’s astrophysics class, and the late Masoyoshi Senba taught me much about perseverance and rigor in solving scientific problems. But many of the best teachers were my classmates – we were a really tight knit group of kids and we learned so much from each other. We had a blast too!

Jane: How did the Physics and Atmospheric Science program prepare you for your current career? (either directly or indirectly…) Or, what do you find most satisfying about your current career? What’s the most challenging thing about it, and how has your education helped you?

Danielle: I haven’t really reached a point of satisfaction. I am like a traveler on a long journey, who knows the destination is yet beyond the horizon. But I know I am headed in a good direction – that I am on a good path.

The most challenging thing is when you worry that you’re off the right path! These existential questions are the most harrowing aspect of being an entrepreneur, or an inventor. We’ve made it through all of them though, so far.

Physics taught me how deeply one needed to dig in to something before one could say that one really understood it. How tenuous our knowledge was – and is – having our system of the world reconceived by each generation of scientists, over and over again. Physics taught me both to ignore the experts, accept my own fallibility, and to keep asking questions, to keep working!

Jane: What words of encouragement would you give students thinking of applying to the Physics and Atmospheric Science program, or students who are currently enrolled in it (especially those who might be questioning their choice of major)?

Danielle: Physics is like a bootcamp for your mind; I don’t think there exists another field of study that develops such powerful and versatile mental skills. It gives us a powerful lens with which we can ask questions of the universe, and of ourselves. Physicists can, and have, gone on to make major contributions in almost every field. Physics, as a field of study, gives you freedom.

Beyond this, physics is one of the most fascinating fields of study just by itself. It satisfies some of our curiosity, but then rewards us with still greater wonder. There are still a great many mysteries yet to be solved!

Jane: What’s your greatest accomplishment so far? (in any aspect of your life – from education to career…)

Danielle: Always looking ahead, yet having fun in the present! I don’t think about the past too much; what’s fun and satisfying is the journey.

I’m really proud of the work I’ve done as an entrepreneur at LightSail Energy, but I’m just getting started – it’s not an achievement yet!

Honestly, the two proudest moments in my life were dropping out of junior high and dropping out of graduate school. I’ll always remember to listen to myself if something’s just not feeling right – and I’ll always remember to strive to find something that does. I don’t know if that qualifies as an achievement, in the common idiom, but it’s something I’m proud of.

Jane: Where do you hope to be in 5 years? In 10?

Danielle: In five years, I hope to have caused the replacement of fossil fuels sufficient to power ten thousand people. In ten, I hope to have made renewables the economical choice for almost everywhere on our planet. And I hope to have helped hundreds of young entrepreneurs follow their dreams, and strike out, toward the unknown.

Tick Tock

The clock stuck twelve. It’s October 30th. In a heartbeat I emerged an adult in the eyes of American law. In an alternate universe, I danced the night into a hazy sunrise. But I left celebration to Haight St. patrons, their addled revelry spilling muffled through the crack in my window. Tonight, we work.

Dawn, a night and two weeks later. It was ready; the design for the both the engine and the drivetrain, encoded in a scattered handful of drawings and documents, one wiki, two heads, and a thousand lines of physical simulation code. The first test: powering a scooter through a staccato ride amid frenzied Manhattan traffic, calculating, by the hundredth second, the will of the engine, and the vehicle’s reply. We’d follow a path devised to track emissions from humming, throbbing combustion engines, byproducts of fuel burnt in tiny explosions sparked every second by the thousands.

EPA New York City Cycle

But nothing save cool air would our machine exhale. Compressed air, ‘a thermomechanical battery’ of sorts, is cheap, long lasting, and quick to recharge (one need only open a valve, and if impatient, run a pump, the tank will fill in seconds.) What’s more, it’s efficient. A batteries charge begins life in mechanical form, in a spinning turbine if charged off the grid, or in the inertia of a vehicle, during regenerative braking. This is then converted into AC electrical current, which is converted into DC current, which, finally, is converted into mechanical energy, losing power at each step. To power the engine this whole process runs in reverse! But compressing or expanding air keeps mechanical energy mechanical (so long as temperature is kept reasonably constant.) In powering vehicles it is superior to the most advanced battery systems known. That is, in every parameter but one.

Historically, the low energy density of compressed air had crippled any attempt to venture further than a couple dozen miles; physics, it seemed, demanded tanks of excessive proportions to travel longer. At 300 bar (‘scuba pressure’), compressed air could release only half a percent as much energy as the same volume of gasoline burnt. We understood, however; it was an efficiency war. We knew that conventional vehicles were incredibly wasteful. There were many battles left to fight.

The Laws of Thermodynamics1

“You can’t win.”
“You can’t break even.”
“You can’t give up.”

We hunted losses relentlessly. We were repaid with a series of compounding improvements, each building upon another, reversing the conventional patterns of efficiency losses endured by vehicles for more than a century. Finally, in a brilliant and unusually compact layout by Steve Crane, we found room to replace the paltry 1.3 gallon gas tank with one ten times its size. Nights yielded to our toil, and, slowly but surely our enemy routed.

“We’ve cracked the code,” we exclaimed. “The city is ours to conquer.” On the highway, whatever benefit earned by our scooter’s light weight, low rolling resistance and ultra-efficient regenerative braking would be dominated by air resistance.2 But air resistance falls quickly with speed, and in the stop-start motion of the city our combined inventions would give our scooter an efficiency historically unmatched.

I keyed in the last few drivecycle parameters, drew a shallow breath, cocked my head, and pressed the enter key. The simulation lasted only a moment, but in that time, my little scooter ran more than one hundred and twenty miles, the equivalent of dozen rides between Wall Street and the Bronx on a single tank. “We’re in business,” I said. With that, and for all of a New York Minute, the questions, worries and restlessness retreated from our hearts. We huffed. “What’s next?”

[1]: To paraphrase C. P. Snow. Hat tip to Jonathan Smith.

[2]: Scooters are not particularly aerodynamic vehicles. Ordinary scooters have a drag coefficient of nearly 0.9, and a frontal area of 0.6 meters squared. We hope to achieve a drag coefficient of 0.6, similar to faired motorcycles ridden upright, but due to the rider’s position this will be difficult: some have described the aerodynamics of a scooter as like a “brick attached to a parachute.”

Keeping Prediction Honest

I base my action upon prediction. Every technologist should. I try to see how the world will be, and then try and see within that future what place I may come to hold.

So prediction is fundamentally at the heart of a technologist’s work. At the highest level, we must predict to find what work focus on, and what future to aim for.

You might then think that prediction, as a skill, is worthy of practice. And practice it gets. In living rooms, in pubs and classrooms and yearbooks and dial-in talkshows and newspapers and blogs and comment threads and slashdot and every polluted corner of our existence, you find evidence: prediction is practiced all the time.

There’s a problem. In most areas of the technologist’s pursuit, it’s easy to see whether you’ve done well. Code should compile. Planes should fly. Cars should go. Bridges should stay up. We have a lot of honesty in our discipline, much of it because we are blessed with tests that we find hard to fool.

A typical test for predictions, on the other hand, is whether the story sounds good at the pub. You make some exclamation. People nod and clap. Everyone forgets.

This would be fine if you’re just looking for some conversation. But if you are, like technologists fundamentally in the business of creating the future, it becomes lot more troublesome. We are left to ignore predictive incompetence until reality slaps us coldly across the face. We are flying blind.

Taking a cue from Trevor Blackwell, I’ve decided to inject some rigor into my life: when I make predictions, instead of casting them abstractly into the air, I’ll post them here: (edit: embarrassingly, slinkset is down, and I do not have an archive. to the rescue! And I won’t delete my predictions — if they turn out wrong, I’ll keep them there, as permanent reminders to learn from.

Through accountability, honesty. Through honesty, improvement.

Thanks to Trevor Blackwell for the inspiration, and John and Brett from Slinkset for the List Hosting.

Notes: a friend of mine noted that most of my predictions seem ‘pessimistic’, in the sense that they take the form of ‘X will not Y.’ I would have to agree with him. But this is largely a byproduct of how these predictions were made – they’ve come from studying some field, working in it for a while, and coming to the creeping realization that one or more of the current approaches were doomed. Besides, much of the skill of experts comes from the ability to ignore false trails.

Further Reading: An excellent site for major predictions (often with significant wagers) is Long Bets.