Desperate to make solar power affordable and accessible to all, engineers and designers are working tirelessly to create a more efficient solar panel.
They might be more successful if they did their thinking in the woods instead of in a lab, however.
Inspired by the spiral leaf pattern he observed in the branches of an oak tree in the Catskill Mountains, 13-year-old Aiden Dwyer recently designed an award-winning solar panel arrangement that is up to 50 percent more efficient than traditional roof-top arrangements in use today.
In an essay titled “The Secret of the Fibonacci Sequence in Trees,” Dwyer writes that he started his investigation by trying to understand the spiral pattern he noticed among the leaves.
“I built a test tool to measure the spiral pattern of different species of trees. I took a clear plastic tube and attached two circle protractors that could be rotated up and down the tube. When I put a test branch in the tube, I aligned the zero degree mark on one compass to match up with the first offshoot branch. I then moved and rotated the second compass up to the next branch spot. The second compass measured the angle between the two spots. I recorded the measurement and then moved up the branch step-by-step.”
To test his hypothesis that the Fibonacci Sequence helped the tree’s leaves gather sunlight more efficiently, Dwyer built his own model using PVC and compared it to a traditional flat panel array.
He was surprised by the results:
“The Fibonacci tree design performed better than the flat-panel model. The tree design made 20 percent 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 percent more electricity, and the collection time of sunlight was up to 50 percent longer!”
The design won Dwyer the 2011 Young Naturalist Award from the American Museum of Natural History, and he has already applied for a patent.
Image Credit: AMNH