I was struck by a recent story on Yahoo.com about 13-year-old Aidan Dwyer, a Long Island resident, who used the Fibonacci sequence to make a solar energy breakthrough.
The story, by Nadine Bells, describes how Dwyer went on a winter hiking trip and looked up into the tangled mass of tree branches above him, and took photos of them, noticing the “spiral pattern that reached up to the sky.”
You and I might have noticed the same thing, and taken a pretty picture, but Dwyer demonstrated a particular scientific genius by going further, with his curiosity leading him to investigate “whether there is a secret formula in tree design and whether the purpose of the spiral pattern is to collect sunlight better.”
How many walks in the woods have I taken without ever asking myself that?
Dwyer applied the Fibonacci sequence — a mathematical principal found in nature — to invent a more effective nature-inspired way of arranging solar panels to collect sunlight than the conventional flat panel arrays one sees popping up nowadays on rooftops and farm fields.
You can view a photo (Toru Hanai/Reuters) of the model of what TreeHugger calls the “tree-like stand affixed with small solar panels in the Fibonacci pattern” here:
In a Fibonacci sequence each number is the sum of the previous two numbers. So for instance, 1+1 gives you 2, then 2+1 gives you three, then 3+2 gives you 5, then 5+3 gives you 8. The sequence therefore starts off like this:
0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 and so on…
This simple sequence is ever-present in nature, determining the proportion of chambers in nautilus sea shells, the length of each section of your arms and fingers, and the relative lengths of tree trunks, branches and twigs. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci figured out long ago that the more perfectly a person’s features reflect the sequence and proportions, the more they are deemed “beautiful,” giving us the Mona Lisa and the faces of famous contemporary fashion models like Kate Moss.
Dwyer compared his model’s ability to collect sunlight with traditional flat panels and discovered that the one based on tree-growth patterns produced 20 per cent more energy; even better, when sunlight is at its lowest in the winter, the tree design outperformed flat panels by 50 per cent.
This could have a significant impact on how solar panels are installed in the future. The tree design takes up less room than flat-panel arrays, is effective in spots that don’t have a full southern view, and collects more sunlight in winter. Because the panels are angled, snow and shade have less impact on performance. Tree-like installations could be very effective in urban areas: imagine walking down a street on which the boulevard is lined with solar-panel trees instead of the regular type.
There’s no reason the panel arrangement couldn’t be designed by computer into beautiful patterns, and the supports painted lovely colors. Because they’re following the Fibonacci rule, they should tend to be beautiful in the first place. Solar trees and bushes could festoon the tops of buildings; solar forest could be installed in derelict industrial areas. The design possibilities are almost limitless. Perhaps in place of a “monoculture” of solar trees they could be interspersed in some places with the innovative urban wind mills that are shaped like vertical cylinders.
The concept certainly fits well with the idea that alternate “green” energy doesn’t have to be large-scale and monolithic but rather discrete and local, with many components of “distributed generation” trickling energy to the grid, or directly into homes and apartments to power energy-efficient lights and appliances equipped with smart meters.
Dwyer was named one of its Young Naturalist Award winners for 2011 by the American Museum of Natural History, and the model has garnered interest from various commercial entities. The US Patent and Trademark Office awarded Dwyer with a provisional patent for his innovation.
It fills me with optimism to think that a 13-year-old boy walking in the woods could be inspired to invent something as elegant and useful as solar trees. Many more great ideas are likely to appear in the years to come from inventors of all ages, to help move us toward a more sustainable future, less reliant on non-renewable power.