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WSU Researcher Finds Better Way To Protect Wind Turbines From Lightning

WSU Environmental Test Lab director Billy Martin applies the special wrap he invented to the end of a wind turbine blade.
Wichita State University
WSU Environmental Test Lab director Billy Martin applies the special wrap he invented to the end of a wind turbine blade.

Researchers at Wichita State University have found a better way to protect wind turbines from costly lightning strikes.

When lightning strikes the blade of a wind turbine it can blow the tip right off. That means costly repairs and unexpected downtime for the wind turbine.

WSU’s Environmental Test Lab director Billy Martin says that’s a big problem for the companies that own and operate them in places like Kansas, which are prone to storms with lightning. Especially since the protection systems already on most turbines aren’t that good.

Like any good engineer, when Martin became aware of the problem, he set out to fix it.

“Well, if I can make that tip larger, electrically conductive, then I can attract the lightning and force it to go where I want it to go,” he said.

Martin, who has more than 30 years of experience in researching the effects of lightning on airplanes, has developed a layered sheet of copper and other special materials that can be applied to the tip of a turbine’s blades. The material helps attract lightning strikes, which can then be directed down into the ground — preventing major damage.

“When I was doing the original engineering test I struck it five times at 200,000 amps without damaging the blade,” he said.

He’s teamed up with California-based company Lightning Diversion Systems to commercialize and sell the product. He said the wrap is relatively cheap, takes about 15 minutes to apply, and can sustain multiple strikes before needing to be replaced.

That’s in contrast to the cost of repairing or replacing a lightning damaged blade which can be in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“So, if I can do it easy and cheaply and up in the air,” he said, “then yeah, it’s probably worth a lot of money to them.”

Brian Grimmett reports on the environment and energy for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett.

Coverage of energy and the environment is made possible in part by ITC Great Plains and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2018 KMUW | NPR for Wichita

Brian Grimmett comes to KMUW after taking a year break from journalism, but he’s excited to jump back in to the fray. Previously, Brian spent almost five years working at KUER 90.1 FM in Salt Lake City. He worked his way up, starting as an intern and sticking around long enough until they relented and gave him a full-time job. At KUER, Brian covered a wide range of topics, but mainly focused on covering the Utah state legislature.