If you look closely at the centre of a sunflower, you can see what is called a phyllotaxis spiral.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Karelj

Imagine a flat spiral, similar to a snail’s shell, coming closer and closer to a point. Now imagine more spiral lines, all centred on the same point. This shape looks like the clouds over a cyclone, or a whirling galaxy.

Now imagine some spirals curving the opposite direction, but still sharing the same centre. It might be harder to imagine, but you should end up with countless little diamonds, arranged in a curving, spiralling shape. This is called a phyllotaxis spiral.

Phyllotaxis spirals are often found in plants. The middle of a sunflower, the back of a pine cone and the leaves on some trees exhibit this pattern. A team of researchers from the USA and Germany have found this pattern isn’t just pretty, it can also be useful.

The researchers were studying solar power stations. In particular, they were looking at fields filled with mirrors, all aimed at the same spot. Before such a power station is built, engineers need to know how much power it’s going to make. This will depend on the number and position of the mirrors in the field.

The team had just finished writing a computer program simulating a field of mirrors and wanted to test it. They decided to model an existing power station. The PS10 station in southern Spain is a large field of more than 600 mirrors. The researchers put the PS10 design into their program and found they could predict the output of the station quite well.

Since their program was fast, they could analyse lots of designs. The best design was a type of phyllotaxis spiral! They found a phyllotaxis spiral with the same number of mirrors as the current PS10 design would generate more power while taking up less room.

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