An American schoolboy has invented a new way to improve the performance of solar panels – by applying a mathematical principle found in trees.
It all came about while Aidan Dwyer (13) was studying tree and branch patterns during a winter hike in the Catskill Mountains in New York State.
“I thought trees were a mess of tangled branches, but I saw a pattern in the way the tree branches grew,” he says. “I took photos of the branches on different types of trees, and the pattern became clearer.
“The branches seemed to have a spiral pattern that reached up into the sky. I had a hunch that the trees had a secret to tell about this shape.”
The Fibonacci sequence
His quest to unravel that secret led him to Fibonacci numbers. This is where you start with the numbers 0 and 1, then each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and so on).
The Fibonacci numbers are Nature’s numbering system. Scientists and naturalists have discovered the Fibonacci sequence everywhere in Nature, from the leaf arrangement in plants to the shape of shells – and even how galaxies fly through space.
So Aidan had a hunch: when it comes to how branches and leaves are arranged to collect sunlight for photosynthesis, maybe the maths of Nature knows best.
“I came up with the idea that I could copy the pattern of branches and leaves with solar panels and compare it with another pattern,” he says. His experiments involved building a tree-like stand with small solar panels arranged in the Fibonacci pattern.
Aidan compared his prototype’s ability to collect sunlight to a standard flat-panel collector – and Nature won. His invention was particularly impressive during winter – when the sun is at its lowest point: the elegant tree design outperformed a flat panel array by up to 50%.
There are design benefits too in Nature’s maths. “The tree design takes up less room than flat-panel arrays and works in spots that don’t have a full southern view,” he says.
Aidan has been awarded a provisional patent from the US Patent and Trademark Office for his invention, and the American Museum of Natural History recently named him one of its Young Naturalist Award winners for 2011.
Read Aidan’s account of his project on the American Museum of Natural History’s website
View some slides about Fibonacci numbers in nature
Read Wikipedia’s entry about Leonardo Fibonacci, “the most talented western mathematician of the Middle Ages”