Was Our Beloved 13-Year-Old Solar Power Genius Just Proven Wrong?

Illustration for article titled Was Our Beloved 13-Year-Old Solar Power Genius Just Proven Wrong?

Many of you in the comments remarked that 13-year-old Aidan Dwyer's breakthrough was nothing new. Fair enough. But it'd be different if someone totally disproved it. One blogger claims to have done it. Can I get an expert in here?

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The blogger's entry has since been taken down (here's the cached version), but the Capacity Factor seems to categorically debunk Dwyer's claim that his Fibonacci tree could draw more power from solar cells. Which, I suppose, is great for science but sucky for the young scientists in all of us who wanted to change the world just by looking at the world. The entry gets rather technical along the way, but the drift is young Aidan's experiment had holes in it from the start.

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For one, Dwyer was mistakenly measuring voltage, which the blogger states is independent of solar output. For another, setting up solar panels at sub-optimal angles—worse than 45°—won't make for more energy output. In the blogger's view, it's a wash.

NOW! I am no expert, so I can't make any assertions as to the veracity of Mr. Blogspot's claims. Graphs looks great, but what do you guys think? [Blogspot via Atlantic Wire]

[Image Via American Museum of Natural History]

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DISCUSSION

If you wished to maximize solar input all year, the sun angles where your house is are a known swath across your sky. Arrays of cells can be pointed perpendicular to incoming sun rays by a number of means. Hinged tiles, gimbals, etc. to keep them pointed right AT the sun. The amount of power it takes to make the physical adjustments is small, compared to increased power interception. Now you've done the max to increase efficiency from any given surface area. But hinges and/or gimbals can cause support weaknesses. From an engineering POV, you have to balance things.

The trees are doing a different thing. They're organizing their solar collectors in competition with each leaf's own shadow. Producing an overabundant number of them to soak up the maximum light as a surface from any sun or sky light-interception angle. Much of the tree is in shadow in the winter in N. America, but the trees are not strongly biased to southern exposure in their physical layout. A lot of their power comes from the whole blue dome of sky. Blue light is more energetic. They tend to be rather symmetrical, most of them. They're just not doing the Magic Thing the kid thought he had "discovered."

To array cells in a leaf-like manner, you would have to deploy a mega-slew of them, many of which would be working poorer at any moment, while only a small portion would be working extra efficiently with any given sun position. Over-expenditure is not something a tree is loath to do. They hang out as many leaves as it takes.

But my wallet says, "No," to solar cell over-deployment.

The kid was thinking, but not thinking through.