13 year old's solar project generates heat if not light.

tree-shaped solar panel experiment

Is this little blue tree the future of solar energy, or an overblown science project?

Who decided solar panels should be flat?

A seventh-grader from New York has worked out that solar panels arranged more like tree branches may capture more light than flat panels.

For real, kind of. Aidan Dwyer, 13, noticed that tree branch patterns are Fibonacci numbers, postulated that it had to do with photosynthesis, took some pretty involved measurements of an oak tree, built a PVC-pipe solar array in the same shape, built a flat solar panel, compared how much light each captured over time, and voila, he had an award-winning science experiment and a great-sounding theory: trees evolved with these patterns for good reason. He found that tree-shaped pattern is as much as 50 percent more efficient than the flat panel, depending on the time of year.

The seventh-grader’s explanation was that the Fibonacci pattern keeps branches out of each others’ shadows in full light and at the same time allows the tree to garner as much light as possible when some branches are in shadow and others in light.

Dwyer wrote up the results in an essay that includes details of a winter hike in the Catskills, the centuries-old history of humans noticing these patterns throughout nature (from shell structure to Galaxy shape), and a nice description of the way Fibonacci explained the numbers using the rabbit birthrate and Sanskrit poetry. The essay won the American Museum of Natural History Young Naturalist award.

Here’s where the story takes an interesting turn. More than one scientist has poured cold water on Dwyer’s theory, while others have cautioned not so fast. It’s a good lesson in the importance of peer review before publishing. Just as tree branches are arranged the way they are for a reason, so are today’s silicon solar cells.

And even if Dwyer’s experiment holds up to scrutiny, there’s a lot involved in making a successful solar module. After theory, proof of concept, peer review, and one or more back-to-the-drawing-boards, you still have cost of manufacturing and competition with other technologies.

But the kid isn’t necessarily barking up the wrong tree. Some of the world’s leading energy researchers are working on mimicking trees. The key is using inexpensive solar cells that work well in diffuse light.

Dwyer’s next move is to study different kinds of trees to find the most efficient design for his PVC solar array. He’s also applied for a patent.

Nice work for junior high. I hope Dwyer falls in with some inspiring science teachers. And I like his DIY attitude. So what’s this kid going to do in high school? I’ve got a suggestion–once you’ve solved the energy problem (even if this first attempt doesn’t do the trick), how about moving on to the global food crisis?

13 year old’s solar project generates heat if not light.

tree-shaped solar panel experiment

Is this little blue tree the future of solar energy, or an overblown science project?

Who decided solar panels should be flat?

A seventh-grader from New York has worked out that solar panels arranged more like tree branches may capture more light than flat panels.

For real, kind of. Aidan Dwyer, 13, noticed that tree branch patterns are Fibonacci numbers, postulated that it had to do with photosynthesis, took some pretty involved measurements of an oak tree, built a PVC-pipe solar array in the same shape, built a flat solar panel, compared how much light each captured over time, and voila, he had an award-winning science experiment and a great-sounding theory: trees evolved with these patterns for good reason. He found that tree-shaped pattern is as much as 50 percent more efficient than the flat panel, depending on the time of year.

The seventh-grader’s explanation was that the Fibonacci pattern keeps branches out of each others’ shadows in full light and at the same time allows the tree to garner as much light as possible when some branches are in shadow and others in light.

Dwyer wrote up the results in an essay that includes details of a winter hike in the Catskills, the centuries-old history of humans noticing these patterns throughout nature (from shell structure to Galaxy shape), and a nice description of the way Fibonacci explained the numbers using the rabbit birthrate and Sanskrit poetry. The essay won the American Museum of Natural History Young Naturalist award.

Here’s where the story takes an interesting turn. More than one scientist has poured cold water on Dwyer’s theory, while others have cautioned not so fast. It’s a good lesson in the importance of peer review before publishing. Just as tree branches are arranged the way they are for a reason, so are today’s silicon solar cells.

And even if Dwyer’s experiment holds up to scrutiny, there’s a lot involved in making a successful solar module. After theory, proof of concept, peer review, and one or more back-to-the-drawing-boards, you still have cost of manufacturing and competition with other technologies.

But the kid isn’t necessarily barking up the wrong tree. Some of the world’s leading energy researchers are working on mimicking trees. The key is using inexpensive solar cells that work well in diffuse light.

Dwyer’s next move is to study different kinds of trees to find the most efficient design for his PVC solar array. He’s also applied for a patent.

Nice work for junior high. I hope Dwyer falls in with some inspiring science teachers. And I like his DIY attitude. So what’s this kid going to do in high school? I’ve got a suggestion–once you’ve solved the energy problem (even if this first attempt doesn’t do the trick), how about moving on to the global food crisis?

smallest-woman-in-world-002

13 year old’s solar project generates heat if not light.

tree-shaped solar panel experiment

Is this little blue tree the future of solar energy, or an overblown science project?

Who decided solar panels should be flat?

A seventh-grader from New York has worked out that solar panels arranged more like tree branches may capture more light than flat panels.

For real, kind of. Aidan Dwyer, 13, noticed that tree branch patterns are Fibonacci numbers, postulated that it had to do with photosynthesis, took some pretty involved measurements of an oak tree, built a PVC-pipe solar array in the same shape, built a flat solar panel, compared how much light each captured over time, and voila, he had an award-winning science experiment and a great-sounding theory: trees evolved with these patterns for good reason. He found that tree-shaped pattern is as much as 50 percent more efficient than the flat panel, depending on the time of year.

The seventh-grader’s explanation was that the Fibonacci pattern keeps branches out of each others’ shadows in full light and at the same time allows the tree to garner as much light as possible when some branches are in shadow and others in light.

Dwyer wrote up the results in an essay that includes details of a winter hike in the Catskills, the centuries-old history of humans noticing these patterns throughout nature (from shell structure to Galaxy shape), and a nice description of the way Fibonacci explained the numbers using the rabbit birthrate and Sanskrit poetry. The essay won the American Museum of Natural History Young Naturalist award.

Here’s where the story takes an interesting turn. More than one scientist has poured cold water on Dwyer’s theory, while others have cautioned not so fast. It’s a good lesson in the importance of peer review before publishing. Just as tree branches are arranged the way they are for a reason, so are today’s silicon solar cells.

And even if Dwyer’s experiment holds up to scrutiny, there’s a lot involved in making a successful solar module. After theory, proof of concept, peer review, and one or more back-to-the-drawing-boards, you still have cost of manufacturing and competition with other technologies.

But the kid isn’t necessarily barking up the wrong tree. Some of the world’s leading energy researchers are working on mimicking trees. The key is using inexpensive solar cells that work well in diffuse light.

Dwyer’s next move is to study different kinds of trees to find the most efficient design for his PVC solar array. He’s also applied for a patent.

Nice work for junior high. I hope Dwyer falls in with some inspiring science teachers. And I like his DIY attitude. So what’s this kid going to do in high school? I’ve got a suggestion–once you’ve solved the energy problem (even if this first attempt doesn’t do the trick), how about moving on to the global food crisis?

Bouncing from sugar cane to synthetic rubber

A picture of Genomatica's process for fermenting sugar into industrial chemicals.A picture of Genomatica’s process for fermenting sugar into industrial chemicals.

(Credit: Genomatica)

Genomatica said today it has successfully produced butadiene, following the trend of many biofuel and biotech start-ups pushing into industrial chemicals.

The company said that it has made enough butadiene from renewable feedstocks, such as sugar cane, to demonstrate the viability of the process. Genomatica’s first chemical process is converting sugar cane into a chemical called BDO, which is used to make automotive plastics, running shoes, and spandex fabric.

Butadiene is used as an ingredient in making latex and synthetic rubber for products such as tires. The prices of butadiene have risen over the past few months, which is one reason why Genomatica has developed a process for it.

The company’s technology is to use engineered bacteria to convert sugars from plants into different chemicals. It also has software tools to help speed discovery of ways of engineering e.coli bacteria to make a desired product.

Genomatica has always focused on industrial chemicals, but many biofuel companies are finding that making bio-chemicals from renewable feedstocks is their best route to get a commercial foothold. Chemicals used in everyday products, such as synthetic rubber or plastics, are also made from oil but they can command higher prices than gasoline and diesel.

Genomatica now has a demonstration facility for production of BDO and plans to start making it at commercial scale by the end of next year.

ClearEdge Power to make fuel cell for data centers

ClearEdge Power is making what it hopes is the Goldilocks of fuel cells, a power source big enough for a business or school but less expensive than larger, high-end models.

The Hillsboro, Ore.-based company today said it has raised $73.5 million from institutional investors as well as Austrian energy supplier Gussing Renewable Energy and utility Southern California Edison.

ClearEdge Power's fuel cell deliver 5 kilowatts of electric power and the equivalent of 5.8 kilowatts of heat.ClearEdge Power’s fuel cell delivers 5 kilowatts of electric power and the equivalent of 5.8 kilowatts of heat.

(Credit: ClearEdge Power)

The series E round will be used to expand to the east coast U.S. and internationally, including into central Europe. The company also intends to expand its product line with a fuel cell designed specifically for data centers, a product which is being now tested with customers, according to CEO Russell Ford.

The data center fuel cell will provide power at about half the cost of grid energy and provide back up in the case power goes out, Ford said. The company is planning other derivative products from its core 5-kilowatt fuel cell, too.

ClearEdge Power makes smaller units than Bloom Energy and FuelCell Energy but the company sees the light commercial market, such as retail outlets and office buildings, as a larger available market worth about $100 billion globally, according to Ford.

A single ClearEdge unit generates 5 kilowatts of power by converting natural gas into electricity using a chemical process. Customers also use the heat generated from power production for space heating or to heat water.

With its latest funding, it intends to set up business in Eastern states, including New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, where there’s a relatively high cost of electricity. A 5-kilowatt unit, which is about the size of a refrigerator, costs $56,000. When maintenance and operation costs are figured in, the cost is lower than getting power from the grid, Ford said.

Fuel cells are a reliable source of power when power goes out and are cleaner than grid power. ClearEdge’s fuel cells don’t emit any air pollutants and they reduce carbon emissions by 35 percent to 40 percent, according to the company. Because they generate both heat and power, they are 90 percent efficient.

One of the big barriers to fuel cell adoption has always been the upfront cost. Return on investment depends on power and fuel prices, but the company’s current commercial customers usually see a payback in around six or seven years, Ford said.

ClearEdge Power is negotiating with financial institutions so it can provide financing, which would remove the upfront cost. Solar companies are using the solar lease model to accelerate sales. Bloom Energy also offers financing where it owns and maintains its fuel cells and customers pay for the power and heat produced.

“As we get a little more mature to add financing as the solar companies have we will absolutely see an inflection in the adoption rate,” he said. “I expect to have something in place in the very near future.”

The company expects to sell 1,000 units next year and then double volume every year through 2015, he added.