October 11, 2011 • Current Events, Emerging Technology, Energy Innovation, Sustainability

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8….. Light!

by Hannah Miller

The Fibonacci Spiral

Someone recently said the words “Fibonacci” and “solar panels” to me, and my ears immediately pricked up. I’ve always been intrigued by the Fibonacci sequence and my first thought was of the PBS show Square One and its segment, MathNet, where I first learned about it.

But this decade’s reference to Fibonacci isn’t fiction. A seventh grader from New York named Aidan recently won the 2011 Young Naturalist Award from the American Museum of Natural History for his work identifying how the Fibonacci sequence can help increase electricity output of solar panels. He began just by being intrigued by the clear patterns in trees he saw while on vacation and then decided to investigate. While researching, he came across the Fibonacci sequence that was discovered in 1209 and was identified as the patterns of tree branches in 1754.

Aidan wanted to know why the trees grew this way. He knew that trees collected sunlight through their branches and so hypothesized that maybe the Fibonacci sequence made them more efficient. So he did what any 13-year-old would do and conducted scientific experiments using homemade arrangements of photovoltaic arrays. That’s what you did when you were 13, right?

Aidan gathered data over a few months and found that overall the Fibonacci tree design of solar panels returned 20% more voltage than did a traditional angled flat arrangement of solar panels. And even better, during the shorter days in December, the Fibonacci structure operated with 50% greater output than the traditional panels. Aidan is currently expanding his experiments to gather more data and solidify his theories.

While I love the intellectual puzzle of the Fibonacci sequence in and of itself (here’s a picture of my favorite Fibonacci vegetable, Romanesco Broccoli), I love it even more when we can use something like this to learn more about our environment and help us be more innovative and sustainable. The need for cost-effective and renewable energy isn’t going to go away any time soon. I look forward to what Aidan and others like him find to help us along the path.

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