Aidan Likens Trees to Solar Panels
Back in 2009 when Aidan was just eleven years old, his parents were interested in installing solar panels on their home in the town of Northport (Long Island, New York), however, their yard was too small and their home’s roof also wasn’t suitable to house large flat solar panels. Aidan embarked on his own experiment to see if he could discover an alternative solution.
While Aidan was on a winter hiking trip, he noticed something about the shape of the tree branches. At first he said “all he could see was a mess of tangled branches.” Then upon taking pictures of different branches on different trees and studying them, he noticed that the branches formed a clear pattern (i.e. the pattern grew in a spiral pattern and in that way they collect sunlight). Aidan’s initial thoughts were to put solar panels on the ends of the branches, maybe it could work and that he could then put these in a tree in his yard. Aidan also wondered if there was a formula behind the shape of the tree branches and if so why this pattern exists.
13–Year-Old Aidan Makes Solar Power Breakthrough Inspired by Trees
After searching the internet, Aidan discovered a formula from a medieval mathematician called Fibonacci. He also found the historical findings of the Fibonacci sequence; it revealed that every different tree has a different Fibonacci fraction. For example, the Oak tree has a 2-5 ratio, which means five branches spiral around the trunk of the tree trunk two times to reach the same starting point. He also found the Elm tree has a ratio of 1-2, the Beech tree has a ratio of 1-3, the Willow tree has a ratio of 3-8, and the Almond tree has a ratio of 5-13.
Fibonacci used to play with a math puzzle to find out how fast rabbits could reproduce over time. He then went on to invent a mathematical pattern starting with 0 & 1, then adding two numbers in the series together and the sum came to the next number in the sequence e.g. 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34 etc…
Aidan found this ratio and sequence amazing as its formula was found in many forms of nature like the shape of knoll shells, seeds of a sunflower and galaxies in space, even ratios of parts of the human body following the same pattern. However, his inquisitive mind still wanted to find out why trees follow this pattern, and using his hypothesis that the main job of the leaves on a tree was to collect and process sunlight for photosynthesis, then the pattern must also be due some way to gathering sunlight.
In realizing that trees were no exception from Fibonacci’s rule, Aidan did extra chores around the home and saved up enough money to buy about $75 worth of materials. With the help of his father, Aidan built two test models to investigate how trees collected sunlight. In doing so, he found a potential new way of arranging solar panels that could increase sunlight collection, using the spiral pattern and designing it based on the Fibonacci principle.
The two test models Aidan created were 1. A traditional flat panel vs. 2. A tree shaped solar panel design replicating the branches and Fibonacci sequence of an Oak tree as close as possible. The reason Aidan gives for creating two test models is because he wanted to assess how his tree design would work compared to common solar panels. Aidan also used data loggers on his computer to record how each model was performing. Also as he wanted to see how much sunlight each model was collecting; he collected voltage data, as well as checking for current. Aidan ran his experimental tests for several months, checking the data as the months progressed.
Making Solar Panels Using the Fibonacci Sequence
After several months of collecting data, Aidan was surprised by what he had found. The Fibonacci designed model had recorded more than 20% more open voltage than the common solar panel, as well as collecting more than 2.5 hours more of sunlight during the day than the flat panel design. However, the most interesting results Aidan found were during the winter months, especially December, when the sun was in its lowest point in the sky during Solstice. The Fibonacci design model collected over 50% longer during the day.
From Aidan’s breakthrough discovery, he has made clear that a tree can track the sun better than flat solar panels as the sun moves through the sky (due to its Fibonacci branch design). And for Aidan, he was able to conclude that the Fibonacci pattern can improve solar panel design in several ways.
1. It collects more sunlight when the sun is at a low angle in the sky. This may prove useful during winter months and in extreme latitudes.
2. It takes up less room in urban areas where space is limited.
3. It is not affected by shadows.
4. It doesn’t collect snow, dirt, rain as much as flat solar panels.
5. It is designed in a more attractive way.
Aidan Dwyer’s Discovery Gets into a Controversy
Encouraged by his discovery, Aidan submitted his design to the Young Naturalist Awards that was held by the American Museum of Natural History. Out of seven hundred applicants, Aidan and his design was chosen as one of the twelve winners.
His discovery was then promoted by the media as Aidan was so young, and he was touted as a child genius. However, when his discovery went viral on the internet, the scientific community went ballistic. A debate ensued between critics and supporters.
Things, as Aidan said, “Got out of hand.”
Critics argued that Aidan had recorded voltage when he needed to record power, and therefore concluded that the experiment was flawed. A public statement about Aidan's work was released by Dr. Kleissl: "I'm certain that he will not find that his arrangement is better and I think it's a romantic ideal that nature has many lessons for us, and there are a few cases where this is true, but in the majority of cases we could teach nature, in a way, how to be better, faster.”
Supporters called him a genius who had achieved a true breakthrough in solar power, and others praised Aidan for proving that nature’s own designs are superior to man's. Others saw money in Aidan’s breakthrough, some of them were venture capitalists. He said: “I think I’m the only thirteen year old in the world who have Venture Capitalists friend me on Facebook.”
Fibonacci Discovery Receives a Standing Ovation from PopTech Attendees
Aidan and his parents were amazed at the attention Aidan’s new breakthrough was getting. Even if the scientists are skeptical, they were still amazed by strangers around the world debating over Aidan’s findings with such passion, while also remarking on his intelligence and abilities. Political debates about the evolution of modern society began, which were truly beyond Aidan’s age and depth.
The lesson Aidan learned from this was that “Sometimes the internet is not a substitute for scientific peer review.”
In October of 2011, Aidan received a standing ovation from a crowd of over five hundred people at the PopTech annual Innovation Conference. Aidan addressed the issue about his work and scientific skeptics. He also went on to say that he is continuing his research and studies as to why there are different Fibonacci patterns in different species of trees; also finding that leaf pattern is also related to the Fibonacci pattern too.
Aidan is in the process of continuing to build new solar tree models using different suggestions and his own research to improve his design, whilst also sharing these findings with others, with the hope of building a better solar panel and solar collection future for tomorrow.
Fibonacci Sequence Solar Panel Inventor Gets Invitation from the Resilience Research Centre
Aidan has received an open invitation to work with the Resilience Research Centre to build Fibonacci arrays that middle school students can use for research. He has also been invited to collaborate with a professor of design at Purdue University to create a Fibonacci array that combines technology with functional art, with the goal to get people thinking about new ways to improve solar technology.
In addition to these offers Aidan has also been invited to present to New York University’s engineering undergraduates about his findings and research, as well as organizers of the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi inviting him to participate. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, founder of the conference said, "Our mandate is to look for great minds, talents, technology innovations around the world," he added, "We need thousands of Aidans to help transform the way we produce and consume energy.”
While the scientific community continues to debate Aidan’s breakthrough, between homework commitments, Boy Scouts, and his school's Art Club and Honor Society, he has recently completed building a new solar tree model, seven foot tall using PVC pipes and more solar panels replacing a replica tree’s leaves.
Solar Panel Trees Inspired by Fibonacci Sequence Makes it to the Finals of the Discovery Education 3M's Young Scientist Challenge 2012
Aidan recently submitted his solar tree to Discovery Education 3M's Young Scientist Challenge 2012, where he was a finalist and received $1,000. His solar tree has now gone on to the Finals in Minnesota competing for the $25,000 grand prize. Aidan said when he was announced as a finalist, "I was really excited and surprised. It means a lot."
"Oil is running out, and we need new alternative sources of energy," says Aidan and the finding that his solar tree is collecting up to 50% more sunlight than flat solar panels has been a huge breakthrough and if proved viable, it will forge a new frontier in the way scientists and engineers look to construct and look to the environment to collect energy for human use. Also as per the advice and feedback from cynics and skeptics, this time Aidan is measuring both current and power and if the tree continues to outperform flat panels in experiments Aidan says, "I'm thinking that it could actually change the world.”
From Aidan’s break through and his young age, there is no argument that Aidan has become a star, and his star will continue to rise as scientists and skeptics argue and debate Aidan's findings on both internet forums and at conventions around the world.
We look forward to following this brilliant young man and his quest to make the world a better place and, at the age of thirteen, he has a long and interesting career ahead of him. Congratulations, Aidan, you are extraordinary!
- 2011: Pop Tech youngest presenter ever
- 2011: Honored by American Museum of Natural History as one of its Top Young Naturalists.
- 2011: Received a provisional patent for his idea by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
- 2012: National finalist Discovery Education 3M's Young Scientist Challenge