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August 19, 2011 8:02 AM   Subscribe

13-Year-Old Makes Solar Power Breakthrough by Harnessing the Fibonacci Sequence After studying how trees branch in a very specific way, Aidan Dwyer created a solar cell tree that produces 20-50% more power than a uniform array of photovoltaic panels.

Northport Middle Schooler Aidan Dwyer has accomplished more in his life than most people three times his age. He sails, he golfs-- and he is a patented innovator of solar panel arrangements.

Aidan has used the Fibonacci sequence to devise a more efficient way to collect solar energy, earning himself a provisional U.S. patent and interest from "entities" apparently eager to explore commercializing his innovation.

Summing up his research and imagining the possibilities, Aidan wrote: "The tree design takes up less room than flat-panel arrays and works in spots that don't have a full southern view. It collects more sunlight in winter. Shade and bad weather like snow don't hurt it because the panels are not flat. It even looks nicer because it looks like a tree. A design like this may work better in urban areas where space and direct sunlight can be hard to find.

Aidan's essay titled The Secret of the Fibonacci Sequence in Trees is a winner of the 2011 Young Naturalist Awards run by the American Museum of Natural History who describe the awards as "a research-based science competition for students in grades 7-12 to promote participation and communication in science."

Previous discussions on solar power here, here, here, here
posted by jillithd (105 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite

 
has accomplished more in his life than most people three times his age.

This is very cool, and good for him, seriously, but to be perfectly honest I could have lived without the accusatory editorializing.
posted by pts at 8:05 AM on August 19, 2011 [36 favorites]


Yeah, I'm not sure but I think jillithd might be one of my parents.
posted by No-sword at 8:06 AM on August 19, 2011 [48 favorites]


For large scale solar projects isn't this kind of thing achieved by just attaching motors to the thing and tracking the Sun? The calculations for that are pretty straightforward and since the panels are fairly light I can't imagine it's that hard to have some small motors keep the things pointed at the Sun all day.
posted by Aizkolari at 8:09 AM on August 19, 2011


Meanwhile, Dan Brown starts writing his next thriller, set in the world of trees and solar power.
posted by azpenguin at 8:09 AM on August 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


has accomplished more in his life than most people three times his age. He sails, he golfs-- and he is a patented innovator of solar panel arrangements.

Wow, being patented is indeed quite an accomplishment, especially for one so young!
posted by clockzero at 8:09 AM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


He sails, he golfs-- and he is a patented innovator of solar panel arrangements.
One of these somewhat mitigates the other two, is that your meaning?
posted by Wolfdog at 8:10 AM on August 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


I totally want a larger version of this for my front yard.

Related: How one Michigan undergrad built the largest solar farm in the state

Not to continue the derail, but he's accomplished more than other people because he obviously has the drive and resources to accomplish his goals... not trying to take him down at all, but I wonder how many ground-breaking ideas we are missing out on simply because the vast majority of children are on the wrong side of our massive spectrum of inequality
posted by ofthestrait at 8:11 AM on August 19, 2011 [24 favorites]


Wow, being patented is indeed quite an accomplishment, especially for one so young

He's a small wonder, all right.
posted by ursus_comiter at 8:13 AM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Fibonacci sequence: life's cheat code. It works so often we should at least try it once in every discipline.
posted by 2bucksplus at 8:13 AM on August 19, 2011 [32 favorites]


Wow, being patented is indeed quite an accomplishment...

Well his parents can't risk anyone else growing one in their vats.

Kidding, kiding.
posted by griphus at 8:13 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


It would be nice if this turns out to be a major contribution to solar engineering, and in fact it sounds clever. But I am wont to distrust this sort of story. "Boy genius" and "green breakthrough" are both stories too nice to fact-check.

Likewise, the kid should be proud that his essay won a prize, but it's not clear the rest of us should care. It's not even published in a peer-reviewed journal(?).
posted by grobstein at 8:15 AM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


has accomplished more in his life than most people three times his age.

God i hate this phrase. Know what i was doing at his age? Getting beaten on regularly by bullies. I was basically struggling to survive in school. Good for him and all, but not everyone shares the same life, and has the same chances. This does sound like annoying parents. "Why aren't you more like him??"

Ugh.
posted by usagizero at 8:17 AM on August 19, 2011 [17 favorites]


Am I missing the part where someone other than the doubtlessly charming young Aidan verifies that his design is more efficient? I probably am, aren't I?
posted by robself at 8:18 AM on August 19, 2011 [11 favorites]


I heard he's being recruited by none other than Pacific Tech professor Jerry Hathaway to work on his chemical laser project, alongside none other than Christopher Knight...!
posted by Ian A.T. at 8:20 AM on August 19, 2011 [31 favorites]


The quote is written by the Patch writer not jillithd.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:21 AM on August 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


For large scale solar projects isn't this kind of thing achieved by just attaching motors to the thing and tracking the Sun?

You don't even need motors. I saw something similar that worked by using a sealed system of black iron pipe (painted black) and liquid propane (just like in the tank next to your BBQ grill). When the panel wasn't square on to the sun, some of the black iron pipe was exposed to the sun - the propane there boiled and condensed in the pipe in the shade. The shift in weight caused the system to tilt until the right sections of pipe were back in the shade and the panel was facing the sun again.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:24 AM on August 19, 2011 [25 favorites]


Yeah, I think the quote is annoying too but let's stop bagging on it and move on.
posted by serazin at 8:25 AM on August 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


...isn't this kind of thing achieved by just attaching motors to the thing and tracking the Sun?

Indeed it is. In fact, passive solar tracking systems don't even need motors; they are themselves powered by the minute heat differential between the closer side and the farther side and move to correct the imbalance.
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:26 AM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


So is he going to turn into the guy from Garden State who got rich inventing silent velcro and just did nothing with the rest of his life?

Seriously cool accomplishment for a 13 year old, though.
posted by entropone at 8:29 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Great for him and everything but I don't understand how he can possibly be the first person to pursue this idea. I'm an idiot and I knew of the benefits of that arrangement for the sunlight collection of plants.
posted by neuromodulator at 8:32 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, not to be a total wet blanket, but how much energy efficiency gain does this give you over a static panels on a south facing roof vs the cost to build a solar panel tree?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:32 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's great that this young inventor has the resources, education, and adult mentors to enable and facilitate his experimentation. Johns Hopkins, for instance, hosts an annual "young engineer" summit for high-schoolers. The award-winner one year was a kid who made a cheap, functional SEM out of "spare parts lying around his parents' house." I wish more children had access to parents who can help them build an SEM and houses filled with spare electronic parts. As is, this sadly reminds me of cub scouts building wooden track racer cars out of specially designed parts their parents bought at hobby stores, using extensive help from their parents, in their parents' well-equipped garage workshops, while other children labor over a plain block of wood.

Here are some opportunities for engineering-inclined youth (courtesy of the Center for Talented Youth).
posted by Nomyte at 8:38 AM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'll be even more impressed when it develops that he patented it merely to prevent anyone else doing so and is going to release it under an open license, at least for noncommercial use.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:39 AM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


A provisional application is not a patent. It is not assessed by the Patent Office. It is used to obtain an early filing date for the eventual patent filing. Read about them here and here.
posted by lrobertjones at 8:40 AM on August 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


The Fibonacci sequence: life's cheat code. It works so often we should at least try it once in every discipline.

It's true. I use the Fibonacci sequence to build petticoats and skirts; it makes nice, fluffy ones.

Next, I will make a Fibonacci layer cake, or something.
posted by Alison at 8:41 AM on August 19, 2011 [9 favorites]


Next, I will make a Fibonacci layer cake, or something.

Voila.
posted by kmz at 8:43 AM on August 19, 2011 [17 favorites]


This is a good essay and good science from a child, but it is not a breakthrough.
I needed to compare the tree design pattern's performance. I made a second model that was based on how man-made solar panel arrays are designed. The second model was a flat-panel array that was mounted at 45 degrees.
He's comparing his tree design against a flat panel at a constant angle. That is, it doesn't track the sun throughout the day (in azimuth) or the season (in elevation).

A standard house installation of PV doesn't track either, but I don't think putting a tree on your roof will solve that.
posted by DU at 8:44 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


And actually, there's a basic science (or at least engineering) error here:
It had the same type and number of PV solar panels as the tree design, and the same peak voltage. My idea was to track how much sunlight each model collected under the same conditions by watching how much voltage each model made.
Voltage doesn't measure an amount of power. Obviously you got the same voltage. Each cell proves a constant number of volts. But if you only point 1 of them at the sun, you get a lot less than if you pointed them ALL at the sun, which the standard design does.

He needs to measure watts, not volts.
posted by DU at 8:48 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


s/proves/provides/
posted by DU at 8:48 AM on August 19, 2011


Yay, kids engaging in the creative process of science and good scientific writing! But my god, breathless and under-critical reporting detract from this so much.

I am sure that using a Fibonacci spiral does help a plant avoid branch overlap because it's a developmentally accessible way to generate relatively prime numbers, but I fail to see how his experiment shows this at all. Look at the solar tree he constructed. Not only does he mount the solar panels at a number of different orientations, but the arbors are so small that he doesn't even need to worry about shade to begin with. He could have done the same thing with all branches being 120-180 degree angles and gotten identical results, I'm guessing, due to the factor of multiple orientations. Though well constructed overall, I'm fairly disappointed that none of the entries did work that didn't have a flaw so significant to its central point.
posted by Schismatic at 8:50 AM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


I love stuff like this. I've been a judge at my local science fairs for years because I love kids imaginations. Sure, 90% are just doing a class project, but there's always one or two doing it just because they want to, have to, KNOW, because it's neat.

Not all of them have great resources, certainly not to the level of this kid, or are as smart as he is, but I've seen kids come back year after year, graduating through beginner to intermediate to senoir categrories (primary, middle school and high school) with projects that build, year to year on what they did before. The amazing thing is not the science they're doing, but the inventiveness and creativity.

The process of modern science most closely resmbles double entry bookeeping, a complicated framework of statistics and QA/QC controls. It can be grinding and exacting, but we can teach that to most anyone who is capable of getting a degree. We can't teach the spark.
posted by bonehead at 9:01 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Voltage doesn't measure an amount of power. Obviously you got the same voltage. Each cell proves a constant number of volts. But if you only point 1 of them at the sun, you get a lot less than if you pointed them ALL at the sun, which the standard design does.

He's got the cells wired in series. I think what he's measuring is how many cells are on at a given time, rather than how much power is being produced (though he doesn't seem to realize that). Agreed that this is a completely useless measurement for the stated comparison.
posted by nzero at 9:14 AM on August 19, 2011


Where I grew up the kids who won the science fairs just happened to have parents who were scientists in the very subject the kids project was on. If I had been a smarter and more cynical kid I would have done a project looking at that but I was too busy making volcanoes out of mash potatoes with gravy for lava as if I was Richard Dreyfuss. At least my project was edible.
posted by srboisvert at 9:20 AM on August 19, 2011 [13 favorites]


Radio antennas have been fractals for a long while now; I'm surprised no one had thought to apply it to solar cells.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:21 AM on August 19, 2011


I use the Fibonacci sequence to build petticoats and skirts; it makes nice, fluffy ones.

Fibonacci sequence, bah! Try Crocheting the Lorenz Manifold!
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:21 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


He's not even wrong. It's a bad experiment. And I hope he's not going to be crushed when someone explains why after all this publicity. He'll probably grow up to be TIME CUBE dude or something. Damn.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:21 AM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


Now look at all those other kids not making great contributions to science. Undeserving whelps.

Its not like they have to be born into a wealth of spare time and subsidized experimentation.

Oh wait, they probably do.

Well, I guess then the obvious take home message is that we need more money thrown at child researchers. We might get 97 potato batteries and 2 Mr. Potato Heads but this kid with his ability to weld, solder, and appropriate expensive machined metal parts will make it all worth it.
posted by Slackermagee at 9:26 AM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is cool as shit.
Thanks kid, nice use of the grey matter!
posted by From Bklyn at 9:36 AM on August 19, 2011


It's not even published in a peer-reviewed journal(?).

Yeah. I will only believe it once his paper has been reviewed by another 13 year-old.
posted by snofoam at 9:37 AM on August 19, 2011 [26 favorites]


Yeah, well by the time I was thirteen I'd mastered the art of destroying entire platoons of plastic soldiers with airdrops of burning kerosene.
posted by philip-random at 9:39 AM on August 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


He's comparing his tree to a 45 degree roof configuration with half the panels facing south and half facing north. Measuring from October to December at a New York latitude, the north half of the roof panels receive zero direct sunlight throughout most of that period. So he's really measuring 20 panels of his tree against 10 traditionally angled rooftop panels + 10 negligible panels receiving no direct sunlight. In the real world, few people place panels on the side of the roof opposite the sun due to its inefficiency. A more realistic experiment would be to put all 20 panels on the south side. I would guess that his tree would be the worse performer in that experiment.
posted by RotJ at 9:58 AM on August 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


His paper is a nice read though, mentioning Dr Seauss and ancient Sanskrit poetry. I wonder if he had help.
posted by memebake at 9:58 AM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Teen Beat is not a peer reviewed journal?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:59 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I saw patterns that showed that the tree design avoided the problem of shade from other objects. Electricity dropped in the flat-panel array when shade fell on it. But the tree design kept making electricity under the same conditions.

These are some unusual conditions for solar arrays. When ideally sited, they are not exposed to shading at all except from clouds. As stated above, the voltage alone is not an indicator of performance and it appears he's measuring the open-circuit voltage to boot. "The fact that the voltage varies little with changing sun light levels makes PV devices well suited for battery charging applications."
It's hard to say much about this without having current measurements. Additionally, when the cells are wired in series, the current of the entire series of cells is limited by the current output of the most-shaded cell. So in this circumstance, if any one cell is entirely shaded on the entire tree, the current output of all other cells is reduced. That being said, this could prove to be a potentially useful arrangement for certain conditions. Of course, we'd need to do some properly-designed experiments to determine that.
posted by nTeleKy at 10:06 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Must every accomplishment be framed in the context of how many other downtrodden people could have done this if only they had more stuff? Yes, you cured cancer, but who wouldn't, given your advantages? Now quit being a douche and talking about it and go -- I don't know, feed orphans or something. And give me your invention for free, btw, since I COULD have invented it if only my opportunities weren't so limited.

A kid, doing science, because he's interested in it, or wants to make a profit, or whatever. But science. Just enjoy that for a second before cutting it down with all the egalitarian posturing.
posted by umberto at 10:14 AM on August 19, 2011 [21 favorites]


Yeah. I will only believe it once his paper has been reviewed by another 13 year-old.

Mr. Dwyer,

We have your paper: "The Secret of the Fibonacci Sequence in Trees" and must unfortunately inform you that we are returning it due to a complete lack of references to Mortal Kombat or that time Jimmy Edwards totally beefed it on his skateboard going down Maple. The Fuck Shit Times Penia569arBilly get off the keyboaasfkd has a strict review policy and we wish you better luck in the future. We see a lot of promise in your paper and suggest that you revise and resubmit.

Sincerely,

Cock Bitch ShitawtwgoddammitBillyajfk
posted by griphus at 10:19 AM on August 19, 2011 [10 favorites]


umberto, I think that's prompted by this quote from the top of the second link:

Northport Middle Schooler Aidan Dwyer has accomplished more in his life than most people three times his age. He sails, he golfs-- and he is a patented innovator of solar panel arrangements.

Two of these three things are markers of a privileged upbringing, and it sure isn't irrelevant to the third. I don't see the reaction here as resentment of his opportunities as much as putting the comparison in that quote into a realistic context.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:20 AM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Did you read the linked articles? The "egalitarian posturing" doesn't come out of nowhere, it's pretty much just a counterbalance to the hyperbole in the Patch and TreeHugger articles.
posted by phearlez at 10:21 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Must every accomplishment be framed in the context of how many other downtrodden people could have done this if only they had more stuff?

When the post is framed, as this one was, as pointing out what a bunch of couch potatoes everyone else is (and especially when the accomplishments listed are ones only advantaged people could do anyway) , I think that's a fair observation.
posted by DU at 10:22 AM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Just by knowing what the Fibonacci sequence is he's doing better than most adults I know.
posted by Jehan at 10:26 AM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Pffft. Big deal. My cousin's 13 and he's already figured out how to use the aluminum in enpty beer cans to cook meth more efficiently. That boy's gonna own his own trailer park some day. Put up some two-story doublewides. For the rich folks.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:35 AM on August 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


I can't believe how insecure you people are.
posted by hermitosis at 10:54 AM on August 19, 2011 [16 favorites]


MOOOOOOOOOOMDS!

HERMITOSIS IS TRYING TO MAKE ME CRY.
posted by griphus at 10:58 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are people really that fucking sensitive that they can't handle a cliche turn of phrase in an fpp? THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT YOU.
posted by Think_Long at 10:59 AM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT YOU.

Yeah, but it could've been if only my opportunities weren't so limited.
posted by 23skidoo at 11:02 AM on August 19, 2011 [23 favorites]


THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT YOU.

Pffft... tl;dr then
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 11:20 AM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's very attractive, but I unfortunately have to agree with the folks identifying the experimental flaws. At a purely physical level he appears to have used somewhere around 20 collectors on the "tree" to match peak output the same as 10 collectors on the flat panel array. Of course, this means that there is nearly twice the raw capacity for picking up light at other angles to convert into energy over time.

Likewise, that tree framework is a lot of embodied energy that needs to be accounted for in the life of the unit. A more even comparison would have used the same number of panels in both configuration and then measured daily (or annual) production from each (kWh).
posted by meinvt at 11:27 AM on August 19, 2011


Lots of people have privileged upbringings. He used his to make something which just might make a difference--which is why, according to his own words, he likes science. Because it lets you do some good in the world.

Lighten up, people. No one is attacking you for not building solar cells instead of commenting on Metafilter. Can we please not do the whole, "Oh yeah well he has money and privilege so it doesn't count," routine?
posted by misha at 11:27 AM on August 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


seanmpuckett,

He's not even wrong.

I suspect you have a good reason to say so; so in what way is he not even wrong?
posted by clockzero at 11:37 AM on August 19, 2011


I don't know whether scientific achievement is a class signifier, but sailing and golfing sure are.
posted by Kwine at 11:41 AM on August 19, 2011


Kwine, it depends on the science.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:54 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Plenty of lower class people enjoy golfing and sailing.
posted by hermitosis at 11:55 AM on August 19, 2011


Well, I, for one, will admit that I bring some personal baggage to an article like this, even though I think it's totally cool to apply Fibonacci and that it's a 13 year old doing it.

I'm jealous as fuck when I hear about how privileged youngsters do something cool. I'm irritated at the fact that, although I was a smart, precocious, science-minded child with an eager eye and a thirst for knowledge, I was born into a family of poor, conservative farmers in the Bible belt who thought education was suspect, who thought reading was sissy and who gave no encouragement at all to intellectual pursuits. I'm also irritated that we moved over a dozen times by the time I was 18, had five divorces in my immediate family and had to make it through a very, very rocky relationship with an alcoholic stepdad.

My youth was extremely disrupted by just trying to survive, yet I studied chemistry from age 5, was reading and annotating the family's ancient thrift-store encyclopedia at age 8 and going out into the woods to collect biological samples to study in a microscope I made myself at age 10. I eventually managed to put myself through college as a National Merit Scholar and working like a dog, being the first member of my family ever to even care about going to college, much less doing it. Yadda yadda self-pitying whining, etc.

So yeah, when I read an article about some precious kid and how he did something neat for his science fair, I read it with a mix of scientific eagerness, but also bring a lot of personal history to it. Not that it's the kid's fault. But it does make me cast a very jaundiced eye on an article that extols the boy's precociousness when I was doing similar things under, evidently, much less privileged circumstance. Sailing and golf, indeed.

All that residual rancor fades, though, in the face of an elegant application of the Fibonacci to an engineering problem. Even if it may be poorly reported and even if the child may have had some extraordinary assistance from privileged family and position, still: it's PHI we're talking about and that's pretty damn awesome anytime you get to consider it. My own unfortunate personal baggage, and the reporter's inadequacy, notwithstanding. :)
posted by darkstar at 11:56 AM on August 19, 2011 [11 favorites]


Show me this design, installed, for less than $.50 a watt. Only then does he have a chance in the face of China's march to solar power dominance.
posted by JimmyJames at 12:03 PM on August 19, 2011


clockzero -- he's measuring voltage and claiming his results indicate "more electricity". Electricity is properly measured as power (often presented as Watts), not just voltage. This is bad experimental design. He isn't testing for what he thinks he is testing for.

It is exactly like measuring how fast the water in a river moves to determine how much water the river carries.

But you can't -- water speed isn't enough. You have to know how big the river is, too. To measure flow rate, you calculate flow speed times flow cross section.

To measure power, you calculate voltage (which he provides) times amperes (which he does not).

For a valid experiment, he simply could have attached a small electric motor with a propeller on it to his apparatus and got an approximation of how fast the blade was spinning to determine how much power was being generated.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:06 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


As growing up middle class, and being privileged to have two smart, college-educated parents who are pretty great, overall, I can firmly attest that I had no patented inventions by the age of 13, and in fact had not even been profiled in a newpaper, magazine or blog.

In fact, my most exciting science fair entry was a papier mache volcano, made with patient help of the parental units. The Patent Office was not interested in my "Method for the Design, Production and Display of Simulated Volcano Demonstration for the Education of Youth."
posted by BungaDunga at 12:15 PM on August 19, 2011


For a valid experiment, he simply could have attached a small electric motor with a propeller on it to his apparatus and got an approximation of how fast the blade was spinning to determine how much power was being generated.

Um, no. That's not how it works at all. A motor will spin faster as *more voltage* is applied but even then probably not in a linear manner.

To look at your analogy of a river, voltage is like *water pressure*. If you have a device that runs on water, and you hook it up to a pipe the more pressure the faster it will go. Current is like flow rate. And *resistance* is like how much back pressure the device you've hooked up stops the water from flowing through (And this is more like all the water in the river has to flow through your device, rather then a small part being diverted. So it's more applicable for a tube then an open river. Anyway.

Basically you use the equation V = IR, and then P = V * I. V = voltage, I = Current R = Resistance and P = Power.

You can simplify the power equation to V2/R.

So here's the thing. Power is completely defined by the voltage and the resistance. And Resistance is defined by whatever you connect to the power source, it's not an intrinsic property of the power source itself, although there will be an internal resistance, which is what prevents you from starting a car using 8 AAA batteries.

Anyway, measuring voltage seems like it's a pretty reasonable way to go about measuring how much sunlight a solar panel is receiving, as long as there is some load (I guess). If there was no load I guess it might not work that well (the panel might continue to increase in voltage until it stopped working)

---

Anyway, I'm really skeptical about the science as well, It seems like a flat array of solar panels will do better, provided they are positioned properly, and it's really hard to buy that this design is more efficient. If he included north facing panels then he was definitely doing it wrong.
posted by delmoi at 12:27 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


These will look nice next to my wind turbines shaped like giant spinning condors' wings.
posted by TheRedArmy at 12:32 PM on August 19, 2011


Well, since I'm *more than* three times his age, that comparison obviously doesn't apply to me. Plus, Mozart was LESS THAN HALF his age when he started composing minuets, so suck on that, Mr. Smartypants Teenager!

insecure about my level of achievements? no, why do you ask?

Is it a coincidence that he's 13 now, which is the first two digit number in the sequence?
posted by jasper411 at 12:36 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Northport Middle Schooler Aidan Dwyer has accomplished more in his life than most people three times his age.

I'll have you know I put pants on this morning.

*Looks down*

Aww, dammit.
posted by dirigibleman at 12:37 PM on August 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


"By the time Gauss was 0.7, he only pooped on prime-numbered days."[1]
posted by Nomyte at 12:46 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Fibonacci sequence: life's cheat code. It works so often we should at least try it once in every discipline.

*Goes to room, flicks on TV and old Nintendo, pops in Contra*

*up up down down left right left right b a start 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21*

*Ding: 3-D-Virtual-Reality-Invincible-Always-Spread-Gun-Bikini-Clad-Hotties-Cheering-You-On-Tupac's-Hit-'Em-Up-Playing-in-Background Mode Enabled*
posted by 3FLryan at 12:48 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


So, how necessary is the Fibonacci sequence for this result? How does his design compare to, say, an array of cells randomly distributed on a spherical surface? Namedropping famous dead people for no real reason is for Dan Brown novels, not actual science.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:56 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lighten up, people. No one is attacking you for not building solar cells instead of commenting on Metafilter. Can we please not do the whole, "Oh yeah well he has money and privilege so it doesn't count," routine?

Apparently not. I should remember never to rEeFi articles about anyone accomplishing anything; life is too short to wade through she shitpool of whiney, hate-filled jealousy. Pity it drowns out the people tying to speak to the value of the science being done.
posted by rodgerd at 1:10 PM on August 19, 2011


So, how necessary is the Fibonacci sequence for this result? How does his design compare to, say, an array of cells randomly distributed on a spherical surface? Namedropping famous dead people for no real reason is for Dan Brown novels, not actual science.

This is every sociology talk I have ever listened to. I'm sure an eager anth student has tallied up the "shibboleth fraction" of the average conference talk.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:13 PM on August 19, 2011


"shibboleth fraction"

We don't play conferences anymore, dude. But you should totally catch our set at Grasslands next Wednesday.
posted by griphus at 1:16 PM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm sorry to dash this kid's hopes, but as a person that works with solar power regularly (as a power source for off-grid telecommunications sites and BTS sites in developing nations), he has it all wrong. Here's why:

a) The mounting cost of large high powered solar modules is non negligible. If a 295W Canadian Solar module measuring 2.0 x 1.0 meters consisting of (72) 156mm cells costs $440, on average it will cost another $75 per module for a basic rooftop angle mount. The basic rooftop angle mounts consist of a few aluminum rails, feet to mount to the roof, clips that go on the rails to hole the module, and back-legs to give the aluminum rails some angle. More for a ground mount which requires concrete poles/foundation work. This adds up over the course of any size of solar installation.

a1) The wind loading of putting multiple 1.65 x 1.00 meter or 2.00 x 1.00 meter modules in the air on a tree like structure hanging in the wind is non negligible. Such a structure will be expensive to construct and will have an even more expensive foundation.

b) It's not news that a solar panel facing the sun directly will produce more power when the sun is hitting it at directly a 90 degree angle. In a mounting setup such as his tree where various solar modules are oriented vertically, whatever modules happen to be facing east when sunrise happens will produce optimal power, then as the sun moves through its course over the rest of the day the other modules which are oriented directly perpendicular to the sun will produce optimal power. In a theoretical setup where you have a perfectly cube shaped structure and can cover 3 or 4 sides of it and the roof in solar panels (as the German winning team from the 2009 Solar Decathlon did) you will produce more power than a single flat plate array of the same number of panels oriented in a single direction (typically pointing south at a tilt angle equivalent to your latitude).

c) If you have a string of solar panels with a number of units in the shade, the entire string's output is degraded. The "tree" type setup results in many of the panels on the tree being in the shade for part of the day. Micro-inverters aside, the only efficient way you can have a structure where a large part of the solar array is in shade for much of the day is by putting many separate strings on separate charge controllers (or inverters, in a gridtied setup) that are running in parallel.

c1) Imagine for a moment a small cube shaped structure with one side facing perfectly south. On the east side, mount two 300W modules vertically stuck to the wall. On the south side, mount two 300W modules vertically stuck to the wall. On the west side, mount two 300W modules stuck to the wall, for a total of six. This setup in combination with three separate charge controllers running in parallel will produce more power over the course of the day than the same six modules installed in a row at a latitude tilt. The east facing modules will efficiently capture the morning sunrise sunlight more efficiently than they would if they were oriented south and not facing the morning sunlight. The same principle applies for the sun's arc through the day for the south and the west facing modules. The problem that makes this setup more expensive is that it (again, without micro-inverters) requires three separate charge controllers or three separate gridtie inverters because part of the solar modules on the cube shaped structure are in shade throughout the day. If you connect all six solar modules in parallel to one large charge controller the kWh daily output will absolutely suck, because the shaded modules will be dragging down the power output from the 2, 3 or 4 modules that are in direct sunlight.
posted by thewalrus at 1:25 PM on August 19, 2011 [18 favorites]


I like the part where he breeds champion polo ponies and has his own Formula One racing team.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:28 PM on August 19, 2011


I'd like to add that as other posters have pointed out, his measurements are completely invalid because he's measuring volts, not watts or cumulative watt hours. Install the same number and specification of solar cells on a tree somewhere outdoor for a one month period and measure the cumulative watt hours generated. At the same time, during the same 30-day period, install the exact same number and specification of solar cells aligned in a row on a traditional angle mount facing south for one month and measure the cumulative watt hours generated.
posted by thewalrus at 1:35 PM on August 19, 2011


The Fibonacci sequence isn't important really. It's unfortunate that he didn't measure power. It doesn't even matter that his experiment is particularly ground-breaking.

What's important, or would be important to the judges is why he did it and how he executed. My guess? He wondered was if trees could be "better" collectors than the flat panels he say on people's roofs. He did a bit of research, found the (well-known) Fibonacci structural relationship that tree and plants do, then tested his hypothesis: are trees better than flat panels?

That's pretty darn impressive for a 13-year old's project. It also seems obvious to me that he did not have a technically-able parent or advisor. The voltage measurement error is proof of that. Somebody with an EE or physics prof in the family would not have made that mistake. I'll bet he had a lot of parental and teacher help writing things up and in support for matrierals, but I'll also bet that he had almost no help figuring it out, designing the experiment or doing the work. It's quite typical of a bright mid-schooler's thought processes.

He doesn't have the structure and macheriery of "good" professional-grade science here. I'll bet there are no repeat trials, limited controls, no QA and certainly no significance testing. He got some basics wrong measuring voltage instead of power. Criticizing a 13-year old's science project for not being professional quality however is like expecting a 'tween runner to be doing under a 4 minute mile.

The important thing is that he had an idea and executed on it. It's not important that he's had a ground breaking idea, though the idea being his and not taken from one of the many science fair project websites or "study guides" is. I see many projects every year where, if only the kid had ten-years experience in the industry, they'd know that this wasn't the question the should be asking. However, he can learn how to do good science. He can learn what question should be ask. It's much harder to find kids who will ask questions in the first place. That's what things like this and science fairs are about, finding and supporting the kid who like to ask questions and who have some talent for answering them.
posted by bonehead at 1:45 PM on August 19, 2011 [14 favorites]


I'd also just like to point out that nobody ever wrote an article about me when I worked out the formula for the "secret hobo spices" in Moe's Hobo Chicken Chili when I was twelve.

(Meanwhile, having gotten over my self-pity, etc., I'm actually doing tres bien as a science educator nowadays, providing encouragement to folks with science aptitude, so it's all good. Kudos to the kid for even caring enough to try something innovative, even if he may have had help.)
posted by darkstar at 1:46 PM on August 19, 2011


I'm just here to tip my hat to the Mathnet quote in the title.
posted by Sibrax at 3:26 PM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


My cynicism chip automatically activates when someone very young discovers something that adults working in that field for many years have not discovered.

I am sure that someone on MetaFilter can point out a case when this sort of thing really was what it purported to be; but I'm incredibly sceptical of every aspect of this story.
posted by alby at 3:30 PM on August 19, 2011


Plenty of lower class people enjoy golfing and sailing.

By caddying or dodging booms, maybe.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:57 PM on August 19, 2011


Wait! Do we still get to kill all the alligators?
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 5:11 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, being patented is indeed quite an accomplishment, especially for one so young!

I call shenanigans! It takes longer than 13 years just to get a patent through the process.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:49 PM on August 19, 2011


I was basically struggling to survive in school

... well, you should have patented it
posted by the noob at 7:04 PM on August 19, 2011


I'd done more than this kid when I was ONE THIRD of his age!

Suck it, underachievers!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:14 PM on August 19, 2011


Sibrax, thank Cthulhu I wasn't the only one that caught that reference. Oh, Roscoe "Fatty" Tissue and Little Louie, where would my geek skills be without you?
posted by StrangeTikiGod at 8:21 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


In other solar power news: Arizona Solar Tower 2X Taller Than the Empire State Building Will Produce 200 Megawatts
posted by homunculus at 10:14 PM on August 19, 2011


In other solar power news: Arizona Solar Tower 2X Taller Than the Empire State Building Will Produce 200 Megawatts

... will?

I think the phrase is 'might, in theory, if it were ever built, which it won't be' It's hard to buy that towers like that would be cheaper then Concentrated Solar Power.
posted by delmoi at 11:29 PM on August 19, 2011


Why are we comparing him to 39 year-olds? He should be compared to 21 year-olds, then 34 year-olds, then 55 year-olds...

You guys are messing the sequence up, man.
posted by BurnChao at 12:14 AM on August 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


another debunking. I knew this kid had not accomplished more than me!
posted by Ad hominem at 1:46 AM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Plenty of lower class people enjoy golfing and sailing.

By caddying or dodging booms, maybe.


As a poor kid who caddied for most of his youth I can say that I enjoyed golf more than the poor bastards trying to put the "motherfucking sonuvabitch ball in the god-dammed bloody hole". Plus I got 10 bucks and a hotdog and cola for lunch.

I also learned not to walk directly downwind of rich people. Apparently rich diets have consequences that probably also correspond to Fibonacci sequences.
posted by srboisvert at 5:26 AM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Quick, somebody give him a 15 years free education in some engineering/physics college before he figures he can earn a lot more in finance!
posted by elpapacito at 6:10 AM on August 20, 2011


Let's try this again. Solar-panel "trees" really are inferior (or: "In which hopelessly inept journalists reduce me to having to debunk a school science project")

I have no idea how accurate this debunking is but I'm a firm believer in open access to information & more than a little bit annoyed the post disappeared without explanation. So, have at it.
posted by scalefree at 7:40 AM on August 20, 2011


bonehead: What's important, or would be important to the judges is why he did it and how he executed. My guess? He wondered was if trees could be "better" collectors than the flat panels he say on people's roofs. He did a bit of research, found the (well-known) Fibonacci structural relationship that tree and plants do, then tested his hypothesis: are trees better than flat panels?


Absolutely! I don't think anyone on here thinks that these criticisms of the work reflect poorly on the kid. I hope he values the criticism and uses it to hone his own ability to think about how to test hypotheses. Trial and error in these things is about the only way one learns, and he clearly has a strong interest and knack for it.

However, the presentation of the work by the media as a "breakthrough" is ridiculous. There are seven other people who won the same award this year, at least one as young as this fellow. If the media wanted to highlight good youth science, they could easily have mentioned even one of them. Instead, whoever wrote the first article on this wanted to play it an example of the "young genius smarter than all those fancy-pants experts" narrative. As someone who has spent a lot of time and effort becoming a fancy-pants expert, to say this without even the slightest hint of due diligence in evaluating the claims is flat out insulting.
posted by Schismatic at 11:02 AM on August 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Perhaps. We've had to fire judges, disinivte them from future years because of exactly the sort of discussion on display here, whether intentionally directed at the student or not. Kids can't help but take criticisms personally, they don't have the framework for it.
posted by bonehead at 11:52 AM on August 20, 2011


/makes golden puzzle cube with Fibonacci sequeAAAAIAIIAAIAAEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeurgl*gllsplsplttss
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:49 AM on August 21, 2011


Okay, NOW I'm disappointed in my kids.
posted by _paegan_ at 2:48 AM on August 21, 2011


Interesting to read details of solar power (e.g. from thewalrus)

Actually though, reading his paper again, its not so much that he's trying to improve the way we use solar power, he's trying to explain why a tree's branches follow the fibonacci sequence and why that is an efficient arrangement for an arbitrary tree growing in an arbitrary space.

"My conclusions suggest that the Fibonacci pattern in trees makes an evolutionary difference."

The stuff at the end about a possible new way of arranging solar panels is like a corollary.
posted by memebake at 8:03 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Actually though, reading his paper again, its not so much that he's trying to improve the way we use solar power, he's trying to explain why a tree's branches follow the fibonacci sequence and why that is an efficient arrangement for an arbitrary tree growing in an arbitrary space.

If this is the case then his conclusions are definitely unfounded. If he had all 20 flat-array panels facing the sun (instead of having 10 panels facing a wall!), his conclusion would have had to be that trees are doing it wrong.

Kudos to him for being interested in science. But he should also realize that his "experiment" was basically biased toward proving his hypothesis, rather than risking its rejection--that's a big pitfall in science and if he learns that lesson now he'll have a big advantage in the future.
posted by DavidandConquer at 9:07 AM on August 21, 2011


Wow, being patented is indeed quite an accomplishment, especially for one so young!


Not really. Patents (like golf and sailing) can be had by anyone able to afford the price of admission.

Good for the kid for trying, but there are probably as-good/better ideas out there that will never get any attention because most folks are struggling just to keep their kid in food and clothing
posted by DavidandConquer at 9:17 AM on August 21, 2011


And... the kid's science fair project has been well and truly debunked.

Before anyone gets all "poor kid doesn't deserve to be criticized for not being all college-level sciencey enough", let me point out that he did not measure what he purported (solar cell efficiency). This wasn't a great project that happened to have glitches; it was based upon a lack of understanding of the fundamentals he was working with.

13yo doesn't understand electricity; not news at 11.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:17 PM on August 22, 2011


Scientists loath to debunk 13-year-old’s claim of improving solar panel placement.
posted by crunchland at 9:38 AM on August 23, 2011


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