Renewable Energy

Middle School Student Develops Novel Solar Panel System & Wins $25,000

Broadcom Foundation and Society for Science & the Public announced that Georgia Hutchinson, 13, Woodside, California, won the coveted $25,000 Samueli Foundation Prize, the top award in the Broadcom MASTERS®, the nation's premier science and engineering competition for middle school students.

Georgia's more efficient and cost-effective solar power system relies on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine where the sun will be at any date and time. She built a computer model to illustrate how electricity from solar panels pointed at those spots would compare to electricity produced by fixed-position panels and created a computer program to control her tracker's motor and the position of the solar panels.

Project Background: Georgia's uncle recently installed solar panels on his home. The more sunlight that directly hits a solar panel, the more electricity it can produce. And the more electricity it can make, the more it can save on utility bills, and the sooner it will pay back its purchase costs. Dual-axis trackers do the most efficient job of following the sun, because they move along two axes. However, they cost a lot.

Georgia had an idea based on her trip to see the solar eclipse in 2017. "I realized if man knew where and when the eclipse will be, we must know where the sun will be at other times," she says. "This inspired a data-driven dual-axis solar tracker."

Tactics and Results: Many trackers for solar panels use pricey sensors. Instead, Georgia relied on an equation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. The equation uses a place's location data to say where the sun will be in the sky at any date and time. Georgia used that plus more math to build a computer model. It shows how electricity from solar panels pointed at those spots would compare to electricity produced by fixed-position panels.

Georgia then wrote a computer program to control her tracker's motor and the position of the solar panels. Finally, she put everything together. She tested the device and compared it to the output from fixed panels on two days in early 2018. The results were within eight percent of her model's predictions. Over a full year, the movable panels would produce a lot more electricity.

"In the [San Francisco] Bay Area, data-driven dual-axis solar trackers could reduce the payback period of solar by up to 40 percent," Georgia says.

The Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology, and Engineering for Rising Stars), a program of the Society for Science & the Public, inspires middle school students to follow their personal passions to exciting college and career pathways in STEM. Thirty finalists, including Georgia, took home more than $100,000 in awards.  They were honored during an awards ceremony for their achievements in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) together with their demonstration of 21st Century skills including critical thinking, communication, creativity, collaborative skills and team work.

The finalists are judged on projects that they presented at their state or regional science fair; their knowledge of STEM subjects and their demonstration of 21st Century skills in a series of hands-on challenges. These challenges include designing a new type of shark tag; designing, coding and building a functional program using Raspberry Pi and Sense Hat; and determining how long it would take for a zombie pathogen to infect the world's population.

"I am thrilled to congratulate Georgia, whose project focused on creating a lower cost solar panel system," said Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of the Society for Science & the Public and Publisher of Science News. "Middle school is a critical time of transition for young people, where they are figuring out their path forward. I'm proud that through the Broadcom MASTERS, the Society and the Broadcom Foundation are able to support and cultivate an interest in STEM for thousands of middle schoolers around the country."

"The Broadcom MASTERS taps ten percent of young people participating in state and regional science fairs throughout the STEM Ecosystem to participate in this national competition. These kids are exemplars of the quality work being done by middles schoolers with their teachers, mentors and families throughout the US. The Top 300 and 30 finalists are representative of special young people who are preparing themselves to solve the Grand Challenges we face through the world," said Paula Golden, President of the Broadcom Foundation. "The Broadcom Foundation is honored to champion young scientists, engineers and innovators and spur them on to greatness."

Society for Science & the Public
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