Among World's Most Lightning-Prone Cities, and A Creation Invented to Solve the Problem

Among World's Most Lightning-Prone Cities, and A Creation Invented to Solve the Problem
Photo by Nikolas Behrendt on Unsplash

Has anyone ever imagined that a Malaysian can be in the same class as historically famous scientists such as Gay Lussac and James Clerk Maxwell?

And, that Malaysian can also be a woman?

Hartono Zainal Abidin of Malaysia's New Straits Times wrote for those who do not recall the two famous scientists mentioned above from their secondary school Physics class, Lussac was the French scientist who is known for his law on gas and temperature, while Maxwell is the Scottish scientist known for his laws on electricity and magnetism that all aspiring electrical engineers have to learn.

However, the two of them have something in common when it comes to lightning protection, a scientific field developed by Benjamin Franklin a century before them.

Lussac developed what is known as the Protection Angle Method (PAM) in 1823, while Maxwell developed the Mesh Method (MM) in 1876. These methods refer to the techniques of placing lightning rods and conductors on or beside a building to protect it from direct lightning strikes.

When the Western world began developing national lightning protection standards at the end of the 19th century, PAM and MM were included in most of them.

However, as buildings grew taller and bigger in the 20th century, PAM and MM were found to be deficient in protecting these buildings from direct lightning strikes.

The problem was partially solved when a professor from Hungary, Tibor Horvath, developed a new lightning rod placement technique called the Rolling Sphere Method (RSM).

This method was based on his study of lightning strikes on high-voltage electric power lines in the 1950s and it entered most national lightning protection standards in the 1970s.

However, RSM was not able to prevent lightning from striking modern, complex-shaped buildings although lightning rods had been installed as per the method.

Fortunately, a solution has been found in Malaysia by Robiah Ibrahim, a Johor-born maverick woman engineer who lives in Kuala Lumpur, one of the most lightning-prone cities in the world.

She burst onto the lightning research scene in 1995 when she co-authored her inaugural paper, “A method of identifying the lightning strike location on a structure”, which was presented at an international technical conference held in the city.

Robiah’s method, later known as the Collection Surface Method (CSM), is based on the observed lightning damage to buildings instead of power lines. CSM made it possible to predict the lightning strike location so that a lightning rod can be precisely placed, a technique that has not been developed by scientists before.

While local academics in lightning protection rejected her findings since she had neither postgraduate qualification nor laboratory experience, an Australian academic and lightning expert who attended the conference recognised her work as a major scientific breakthrough.

University of Queensland’s Professor Mat Darveniza even suggested that CSM formed the basis of a new lightning rod placement method for modern complex shaped high-rise buildings.

In 2003, Darveniza’s suggestion became a reality when the principles of CSM were included in the Australian lightning protection standard, AS1768. This made Robiah the first woman in the world to have developed a new lightning rod placement method in the last 200 years.

It placed her in the same class as Lussac and Maxwell, whose methods are in the standards and applicable today for low- and simple-shaped buildings.

In 2006, the principles of CSM were included in the new international lightning protection standard, IEC62305, thus making Robiah’s method applicable on a worldwide basis.

The following year, CSM returned to its country of origin when the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry approved the international standard as the new Malaysian lightning protection standard, MS-IEC62305.

European experts claimed that CSM could provide up to 98 percent protection against direct lightning strikes if applied correctly.

However, thousands of Enhanced or Early Streamer Lightning Protection rods are found all over the country, endangering people whenever thunderstorms occur.

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