Aidan Dwyer is not like most kids his age. While the majority of his peers are out playing baseball, causing mischief, or nagging their parents, the 13-year old Aidan has been keeping himself busy working on an innovative development in solar design — and he might be on to something. Dwyer’s inventive model taps into biomimicry and the Fibonnaci sequence, and what is now an exciting backyard experiment has the potential to grow into a significant breakthrough in clean energy.
Aidan’s idea all starts with the Fibonacci sequence, a pattern of numbers in which each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two. So, 0+1 = 1, and 1+1 = 2, etc, making the very beginning of the sequence 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on. But what do these numbers have to do with solar energy? As Aiden discovered, quite a lot.
When put into ratios, the numbers of the Fibonacci sequence create patterns that coincide with the way in which branches and leaves grow on trees. Inspired by the complex branch formations he observed on a hike in the Catskill Mountains, Aidan figured that this could not merely be coincidence. He concluded that the mathematical pattern dictating leaf and branch formation must have something to do with photosynthesis — there is a reason that plants have evolved into the shape they are, and it would be logical for them to grow in a way that keeps each one out of each other’s shadows and maximizes the amount of energy they can take in.
From there, Aidan got to work designing his first prototype. His work resulted in a tree-like solar array in which a stand supports a number of panels arranged in the Fibonacci pattern. In no time, the experiment turned into an eye-opening realization for not only Aidan, but the solar industry, as well. Aidan’s prototype generated up to 50% more energy in low light than a traditional, flat panel array, since the panels’ positioning allowed them to absorb as much light as possible from the sun, just as a tree in nature would. In addition, Aidan’s design takes up less space than a traditional array, and can collect more light in the shade, or even in adverse conditions like snow. Aidan was also quick to point out another key prospect for his design, citing in his research that the design would be best suited to urban areas where space and access to direct sunlight is often difficult to come by.
Aidan’s project was impressive enough to snag him the Young Naturalist Award of 2011, presented by the American Museum of Natural History. But what possibilities does the innovation have in the grand scheme of things? That still looks to be up in the air. Aidan’s results have already been refuted, as a report by Smart Planet dissected Aidan’s results and came to the conclusion that they might not be as impressive as first reported. The article cites a UC San Diego environmental engineering professor as saying that Aidan measured the voltage, and not the current, of his device, and suspected that the correct numbers would not in fact be as impressive. The article claimed that at the time of day in which there is the most sunlight, a traditional solar array would produce more energy than Aidan’s model because of its direct facing towards the sun.
In spite of this convincing criticism, though, Aidan’s design cannot be written off entirely. His design has an advantage over flat panels in the morning, when several of the panels would be at a position to get more sunlight from the rising sun. Most importantly, the design is only at its nascent stages. Aidan is not alone in his ideas, as a number of leading solar companies have been searching for ways of mimicking trees. Aidan has a patent on his design, and is reportedly attracting attention from a number of companies eager to further investigate his idea and bring the design into commercial use. Aidan’s design won’t revolutionize the solar industry or start popping up on homes all over the world anytime soon, but his work is significant in that it is a remarkable example of human ingenuity, and may have the potential to spark something greater if more advanced engineers can tap into his theory and develop his prototype. His work is truly amazing and ingenious, and only time will tell if what he has uncovered can impact the way in which we power our lives.
Overall, not bad for a 7th grader.
Photo Credit: treehugger.com/files/2011/08/13-year-old-makes-solar-breakthrough-with-fibonacci-sequence.php