Teen Taps Into Power of Fibonacci to Harness the Sun

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After a hike in the Catskill Mountains last winter, 13-year-old Aidan Dwyer noticed the patterns in the branches of trees. Investigation led him to an important insight about how the shape of the branches can be used by the tree to optimize the amount of light collected for photosynthesis. Some supplies and several sunrises later, he had an award-winning experimental design to improve the harvesting of solar power.

Aiden Graphs His ResultsAiden Graphs His Results

13-year-old scientist Aidan Dwyer graphed his results (source: American Museum of Natural History)

Applying the Fibonacci sequence — where each number is equal to the sum of its two predecessors — Aidan crafted a bio-inspired design for a solar panel array. The result was a solution that claims to produce more power than a uniform array of solar cells:

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!

Aidan wrote an essay, with citations, reflecting on his experiment and submitted it to American Museum of Natural History. Aidan was one of a dozen winners in their most recent Young Naturalists competition, an annual research-based contest for students from grades 7 to 12. Each submission consists of an essay reporting on a scientific experiment, which is reviewed by a panel of judges (environmentalists, scientists and educators). Participants receive feedback on both strengths and weaknesses of their work, with two selected from each grade to win cash prizes and in invitation to the Museum.

According to his AMNH interview, Aidan considers pollution and the destruction of natural resources to be the most pressing area for scientists to investigate. “Many of our problems around the world come from the way we are quickly using up the Earth’s resources, like trees, without replacing or saving them,” he says. “Pollution is a big scientific and social issue that threatens to destroy the environment, the world and humans. We need to learn how to overcome this problem and solve it using science.”

Not surprisingly, one of Aidan’s citations in his essay is Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.

In addition to Aidan’s work, the topics for the eleven other award-winning young scientists are:

Tip of the Hat to Andrew Michler, whose article in the Inhabitat blog also sparked some deeper design critique from readers.

UPDATE (8/22 11:48a Eastern): Yes, we are aware that young Aidan’s conclusions have been contested elsewhere on the Internet, including this article offered by Tuan Nguyen. The focus should probably be on what this group of young people have managed to do with a little curiosity and smarts, not whether the work would either hold up to stress-testing on Nature or revolutionize the world. The best critical comment I have read is one at the end of the aforementioned article, by Rajiv Varma of Western Ontario University:

“What I would really like is that this young man should not be discouraged by telling him that what he has proposed is wrong,” Varma wrote in an email. “But instead help him getting in touch with researchers or academicians working in this area so that a bright mind is nurtured in this area.”

So, rather than continuing to post a bunch of “uh-uh” comments, maybe we can crowdsource some connections and resources that will help him out. Or read the work of the other 11 award-winners.

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