Solar Discovery at Thirteen – Well No Actually

It’s not Australian or New Zealand research, sadly, but this is simply so cool I can’t resist posting. In one sense I wouldn’t get too excited. I’m doubtful how often this will prove practical. Solar panels are laid flat because it’s cheap and, in urban environments, avoids them obstructing people’s views. The fact that one can collect more energy by placing them around a central pole like leaves on a tree is fascinating, but I wouldn’t assume it will contribute to the solar revolution.

On the other hand, who could be anything but thrilled about a 13 year old with the curiosity about the world to wonder why trees branch as they do, the persistence to learn why and the initiative to experiment and discover an unexpected application. In some ways for me, however, the most intriguing thing is that for this boy, using solar panels for testing was a natural thing to do. One can only wonder at what he’ll achieve in future years.

Moreover, if it turns out his spacing technique does in fact produce a larger increase in power than in costs, even by a a few percent, the global impact will be enormous.

Update: Ok this is embarrassing. I really should have dug a bit deeper before posting. While I was at least more sceptical than some of those who jumped on this story (noting it wasn’t likely to be practical) I should have listened to the voice in my head which was saying “I can see how the smoothing might work with more power in the morning and evening, but how could this arrangement possibly produce more total power than flat panels?”. Answer is, it can’t. There were some pretty serious flaws in the whole experiment.

Still, the whole thing was a wonderful achievement for a 13 year old. I stand by my second paragraph about how exciting it was that someone that age would even undertake research like this. The failure was in whoever was supervising, who really needed to check more closely, as well as everyone who reported this – including me.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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