Blog Debunks 13-Year-Old's Solar Power Breakthrough
image via American Museum of Natural History
Last week, EarthTechling let us know that a 13-year-old came up with a solar breakthrough, noticing that using the Fibonacci sequence to organize solar cells could boost efficiency. The news story was big on TreeHugger, as well as on dozens of other news outlets around the nation. Everyone was excited for a teen to do such an interesting science project, and to be recognized with a Young Naturalist award by the American Museum of Natural History. However, the teen's glory is short lived -- a science blog has debunked the project. A Flawed Experiment
Over the weekend, the Atlantic Wire let us know that a blog called The Capacity Factor put the screws to both the project, and the media. (Note: The Capacity Factor blog post has been taken down but the link leads to the cached page.)
As we posted, "Aidan has used the Fibonacci sequence to devise a more efficient way to collect solar energy, earning himself a provisional U.S. patent and interest from "entities" apparently eager to explore commercializing his innovation."
But as The Capacity Factor post points out: "This is, I'm sad to say, clear nonsense. I'll take this in two parts: one, why his experiment is, unfortunately, completely broken (sorry again). Two, why the imagined result is impossible nonsense."
As for the first part, the blog states that the teen, "did not measure power outputs from the solar cells. Instead he measured voltage, without a load attached ("open circuit"). They are barely related -- in solar cells, voltage is actually almost a constant, independent of power."
And as for the second part, "I'm not sure I understand the confusion by which people think there could be some advantage, to orienting panels at sub-optimal angles. That somehow combining sub-optimal panels, together, makes them generate more energy in the net."
The Not-So-Experimental Media
The blog finally concludes with: "How did this confused science project became international news?"
While I can't do the calculations to prove or disprove the teen's science experiment, I can answer this question. Because we all love hearing about teens doing interesting, cool things in school. Because we all enjoy knowing that children still take an interest in something other than video games. Because it's exciting to hear that a teenager is thinking about things we care about. Because we would trust that when a teen gets an award from the American Museum of Natural History, then he's probably right, or at least right enough, to write about. Because he seems cool, and we like that.
As commenter Florent Boico pointed out on TreeHugger about a day after the post was published:
So, I know you will hate me but, as a solar engineer, this is wrong on many levels. Actually, you will note that there are no power comparisons on the page, just voltage comparisons and that does not mean much at all. Given the fact that he used pieces of disparate cells, (probably panels that were broken during manufacturing and packaged for hobbyists) it is even meaningful. Actually, I doubt you can extract much energy from this solar tree at all (and there are good mathematical reasons as to why, specifically the incompatibility of the I-V curves of these differently positioned PV cells).
I still think he deserves an A.
I love the concept though, it's really cute and would make a great art exhibit if you could put thousands of these on a tree and have each of them light up a tiny LED at night. That would be gorgeous.
So, even when we're able to see the flaws, we still very much want to support a teen who is thinking creatively about real life problems needing solutions.
Sure, we like many other reputable news information sources including Popular Science, Gizmodo, The Atlantic Wire, and others wrote about the story because we thought it was a very interesting news piece that our readers would care about. But we do also care very much about accuracy, which is why we don't hesitate in posting changes when we're wrong, and opening up discussion to readers or experts who are more knowledgeable on a topic than we are.
While The Capacity Factor can accuse the media of "blindly parroting" there is, as a matter of fact, a lot of thought that goes into articles we write and post, and which continues on after the articles are published to ensure we're giving readers information they need to hear.
On a daily basis, we write what we learn from sources we feel are reputable and we add the proper level of skepticism. This one happened to slip through our fingers but, thankfully, we always keep our ears open for experts with something to add, or in this case take away, and keep the updates coming.
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