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Seeds of hope

Written By: - Date published: 9:35 am, August 21st, 2011 - 19 comments
Categories: energy, science, sustainability - Tags:

I’m the worrying kind, and not too optimistic about our collective future in the medium to long term. So it’s nice every now and then to find a hopeful little snippet like this one, as featured on Slashdot:

An anonymous reader tips news of 7th grader Aidan Dwyer, who used phyllotaxis — the way leaves are arranged on plant stems in nature — as inspiration to arrange an array of solar panels in a way that generates 20-50% more energy than a uniform, flat panel array. Aidan wrote,“I designed and built my own test model, copying the Fibonacci pattern of an oak tree. I studied my results with the compass tool and figured out the branch angles. The pattern was about 137 degrees and the Fibonacci sequence was 2/5. Then I built a model using this pattern from PVC tubing. In place of leaves, I used PV solar panels hooked up in series that produced up to 1/2 volt, so the peak output of the model was 5 volts. The entire design copied the pattern of an oak tree as closely as possible. … The Fibonacci tree design performed better than the flat-panel model. The tree design made 20% more electricity and collected 2 1/2 more hours of sunlight during the day. But the most interesting results were in December, when the Sun was at its lowest point in the sky. The tree design made 50% more electricity, and the collection time of sunlight was up to 50% longer!”

There is so much to love about this story.  The creativity of one so young.  The neat maths that underlies the physical world.  The immensely practical result. And the timely reminder – follow nature and you won’t go wrong. Bravo Aidan Dwyer.


19 comments on “Seeds of hope”

  1. RedLogix 1

    Absolutely cool. This is exactly the kind of thinking that works.

  2. ianmac 2

    Smart kid. But ahhh! What were his scores on National Standards? That would be far more important than messing about with oak trees!
    Yeah. I know. American lad but vaguely, my point is that inventive creative genius trumps pedantic assessments every day.
    And solar energy must be the greatest hope for energy collection. Wind is limited.

    • Phaedrus 2.1

      Dead right. What were his test scores? What were his school’s test scores? How did the school rank on the league table? Hope his teacher got merit pay for this? The school principal too, of course? This putting learning into action stuff is nonsense. We all know that what’s written on paper is vital, so it can be proved that he met the standard. Of course, now he’s doing this, the next step to be ‘aspirational’ and ‘raise the bar’ so that his ‘achievement can raised further”.

    • SHG 2.2

      Yes, my first thought when reading the parent article was “there has to be an angle here through which National’s education policy can be attacked”. Congratulations to you sir on finding it and posting it so quickly.

  3. Lanthanide 3

    If you read the comment threads, there are many very serious concerns about the quality of the research done: the type of panel he’s using is a cheap one and therefore reaches maximum power output quickly, effectively capping the amount of power you can get from an individual cell (rough example: a cell partially in shade will generate 50% of the capacity of a fully lit one, when really it should be more like 20-30%), the photo shows the setups apparently outside in a yard somewhere with trees that will cast different amounts of shadows on the two setups, he’s not actually measuring the correct value, etc etc.

    So in terms of research output, this is slightly interesting, but I don’t think it’s a breakthrough that no one else has considered before. More likely it was considered, found to not be very useful in a proper test environment, and discarded.

    Good to see someone so young so interested in science, though.

    • Bill 3.1

      ffs lanthanide!

      The two arrays are as near as dammit in the same position and could never be in exactly the same position given their different construction (one being more vertiginous than the other).

      As for the partially shaded cell producing 50% of the power of an unshaded cell rather than 20-30%, well it’s the same for both constructions, so the comparison between the two holds up…unless you’re going to say that the conventional construction was deliberately located to attract more shade. (x number of cells positioned ‘so’ collect y amount of shade and produce z amount of electricity compared to x number of cells positioned ‘so’ collecting y (minus) amount of shade and so producing z (plus) amount of electricity)

      And didn’t he say that by mimmicking the architecture of the tree, he discovered that it minimised the effect of the shade it cast on itself or that was cast on it?

      And even if he has got some things wrong, so what? Is that a reason to condemn him outright by offering up faint praise? By the attitude you display in your comment I’d pity any poor bugger who might be brought up in your care.

      • Lanthanide 3.1.1

        “As for the partially shaded cell producing 50% of the power of an unshaded cell rather than 20-30%, well it’s the same for both constructions, so the comparison between the two holds up…unless you’re going to say that the conventional construction was deliberately located to attract more shade. (x number of cells positioned ‘so’ collect y amount of shade and produce z amount of electricity compared to x number of cells positioned ‘so’ collecting y (minus) amount of shade and so producing z (plus) amount of electricity)”

        You’ve missed my point, and the point of the research. The idea of the research is that instead of just putting the panels on a flat surface where they either get 100% or 0% sun (and a short window in between when the sun moves around), they will instead receive somewhere between 0% and 100% for a lot longer duration.

        Thus the total capacity of the cell matters a lot: if in 100% sunlight the cell generates a maximum of say 5V (because it is a cheap cell and therefore total capacity is capped), and under 25% sunlight it generates 2.5V, clearly the maths doesn’t add up. Therefore you’d get the same results from running 20 cells at 25% capacity as you would running 10 at 100% capacity, when normally you should expect 40 cells at 25% = 10 cells at 100%. If those 20 cells are receiving anything over 25% each, then you’d be generating more power than the 10 cells at 100% setup.

        I may not have explained myself perfectly clearly, but this *is* a problem with his setup, and this simply illustrates why it is difficult to do research that gives meaningful results: it’s easy to overlook aspects of the test which you haven’t considered.

        “And even if he has got some things wrong, so what? Is that a reason to condemn him outright by offering up faint praise?”

        Because many people, including those on Slashdot, look at the headline and the article and go “wow, we can make solar power so much more efficient! this will solve lots of problems!” when actually the research doesn’t justify such a conclusion. R0b himself is leaning towards such a reaction himself: “The immensely practical result”.

        If someone came out with a magical fuel additive that claimed 10% extra mileage for your car, you’d be right to be skeptical. It’s no different when a child does some remarkably insightful research – don’t take their claims at face value.

        “By the attitude you display in your comment I’d pity any poor bugger who might be brought up in your care.”

        Part of the reason I never intend to have children, I’d simply do a rubbish job. Also the best thing you can do to save the environment isn’t to use eco lightbulbs or buy organic or cycle to work. The best thing you can do to save the environment is not to have children.

        • Bill

          Okay. Fair points. ( I get where you’re coming from with the cells and why a straight comparison between the two arrays isn’t accurate in terms of determining comparitive efficiency)

          Not that I was taking things at face value. My hesitation (cough) stemmed from the weight given to the branch configuration. Branches grow as much to give trees stability in wind as for any other reason. So I can’t quite understand the focus. Yes, main branches have sub branches that support leaves and it ‘makes sense’ for them not to obstruct one another too much. But that could have much to do with wind factors than anything else and be a happy coincidence regards light penetration.

          And leaves aren’t fixed in position. They move with the light. Anyway, it stuck me that the configuration/shape of the leaves themselves (whether on trees or other plants) might be worth looking at in terms of solar panel design. If there is an underlying commonality that can be replicated or mimmicked…..

          Anyway, the guy deserves credit for looking outside the square.

        • r0b

          R0b himself is leaning towards such a reaction himself: “The immensely practical result”.

          I’d be very surprised if the results don’t hold up in practice.  Once you stop to think about it (as Aidan apparently did) it makes perfect sense that evolution would have converged on an optimal way of arranging solar energy collectors (aka leaves).

    • mik e 3.2

      National will try and show it is the party of innovation with the election by trotting out its old war horses like Ruth Richardson putting on a good media front mean while National has slashed and burnt the innovation sector by cutting money and playing politics with this sector only reinstating innovation funding at less than half the previous amount after a 2year hiatus making it look like they have been innovative when in fact they have been very destructive to the innovation sector.Then when the media get stuck into them they trot out some small scale good news stories like the old Bolger trick.An example is wool research that had been undertaken at Lincoln university the two world class scientists that were doing research on new uses for wool had their funding completely cut and a third world country South Africa new their value and have snapped them up . The break throughs they had made have been put aside because this National so cold farmers party wouldn’t put any money into marketing these significant breakthroughs . Now South Africa is getting all their Knowledge for next to nothing .After the millions we as tax payers have invested Typical bean brain bean counters.

  4. Hilary 4

    Knowing absolutely nothing about the boy (who would be about 12?) I wonder whether he has Aspergers. If so he has probably struggled with school routines and requirements (such as in the US the No Child Left Behind national testing) and may even be home schooled. Being so bright and different risks causing anxiety and depression so it is great that he seems to have a supportive family who nurture his strengths and abilities.

    On the other hand it could be the backstory for Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory.

  5. Colonial Viper 5

    The brilliant intelligence of mother nature strikes again. The lad is smart too.

  6. Afewknowthetruth 6

    Ah. The economy of hope and delusion, founded on ignorance.

    I too was a once a believer. Now I know that solar panels have a limited life and their efficiency declines over time. And battery systems have an even more limited life.

    Technology isn’t going to save us. It’s too late. Decades of business as ususal and population overshoot have dug a hole too deep.

    Undoubtedly the culture of denial will remain intact until the financial markets collapse – probably later this year the way things are looking, though some more fraudulent financial props could hold things together for as long as another 15 months.

    • r0b 6.1

      I understand where you’re coming from Afew, and you may even be right (though much too rushed in your time frames).  But even if the battle is already lost, we should not (in my opinion) stop fighting.  New research and new ideas are always worth pursuing.

  7. Oligarkey 7


    So what’s the plan? Is there a way we can find out all the people who have denied peak oil and environmental issues for the last 10 years and use them as a resource? mmmm – National Party Soylent Green patties

    Seriously though i think there’s at least 5 years before the expletive really hits the fan i.e. 15-30% unemployment in the west, though it’s impossible to know really. Also, i don’t think we’ll have mass starvation in the west for a long time. We’re just going to have to go to a more vegetarian diet.

  8. erentz 8

    Sorry, there is no scientific breakthrough here, just bad science:


    Unfortunately the original blog post was removed.

  9. Oligarkey 9

    …Also AFKTT

    It may just be that we will have to revert to some kind of cuba-model in a less energy-intense, financially frozen economy. That would just mean lots more expensive manufactured goods, and less of them, less traveling, more public transport, fewer chain stores, plus lots more manual labour. Certainly, the current paradigm would have to fall over once we get up in the region of 30% unemployment, but that’s not necessarily the end of the world. It’s the densely populated poorer countries that i’m really concerned for.

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