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NASA's Go-To Lightning Guy Disses Fuzzy Dissipators
After Fires, Manufacturer Settles Energy-Sector Case in Texas
First in a series.
If you’re like a lot sailors cruising southern waters, you’ve probably looked to the top of someone else’s mast and wondered, “Does that fuzzy brush thing really work against lightning?” You know the thing I’m talking about. They’ve been on the market under different brand names for years. One early example was even called No Strike.
Loose Cannon decided to ask someone who could be trusted to give a credible answer.
Dr. Carlos T. Mata of Scientific Lightning Solutions is the man who designed the lighting protection systems for the launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is indisputably the most sophisticated lightning protection system in the world.
In 2009, Mata was awarded NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award that the space agency can give a private citizen for an “achievement or contribution… that has made a profound or indelible impact to NASA mission success, therefore, the contribution is so extraordinary that other forms of recognition by NASA would be inadequate." Other past honorees include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan and Robert Heinlein.
Leaders and streamers—here is a standard explanation of how lightning works:
Lightning is electricity acting to equalize voltage between storm clouds and the earth. When there is a big difference between these charges, the cloud forms “downward leaders” and objects on the ground—like a sailboat mast or tuna tower—begin to form “upward streamers.” When a leader connects with a streamer, lightning has the path it needs to exchange charge between the earth and the cloud, reducing the charge differential.
Forespar, a marine distributor of the device pictured at the top of this story, explained how it works in its product literature:
Lightning Master static dissipators employ the point discharge principle to reduce the likelihood of a direct strike to your boat. As a thunderstorm travels through the atmosphere, it induces an opposite charge on the surface of the earth beneath it. When this static ground charge reaches your boat, the storm cloud concentrates that charge on your boat...Lightning Master static dissipators work to control both the build-up of the static ground charge and the formation of streamers. As the potential builds, it is leaked off the hundreds of extremely (electrically) small radius electrodes of the dissipator.
Mata was asked whether Forespar’s “static dissipator” works as advertised. “The short answer is no,” he said, elaborating:
Most of these devices tend to smooth the electric field, prevent the electrical field from becoming too large. What they do, in fact, is to delay the formation of an upward streamer, which is a component of a strike. If you have a probe, if you have an electrode, if you have a brush, that is going to smooth the electrical field, and it's going to take a much larger electrical field gradient to have an upward streamer developing from those electrodes. It means it takes a greater electrical field to do that.
So, because it’s going to take (a streamer) longer to develop, something next to it can get struck. What these devices do in fact is somehow protect themselves, they don’t provide protection to anything next to them.
Let’s say I have a sailboat that has only one mast, and I want to put one of these brushes at the very top. What is going to happen, if I have lightning in the area, is that an upward streamer coming from that brush device is going to get delayed slightly, but, instead, (you'll have) an upward streamer from a rope—it doesn’t have to be metallic, by the way. Anything you have up there, like a weather sensor, that is what will launch an upward streamer, and that is what's going to get struck.
That device doesn’t shield the boat.
Multiple attemps to reach decision-makers at Forespar were met with silence, but Bruce Kaiser was happy to talk; he’s CEO of Lightning Master, the Clearwater, Florida, company that manufactures the device. He sends “several hundred” of the wire-topped air terminals a year to Forespar and has done so for more than 30 years.
Kaiser called says his Forespar business is “a kinda hobby for us.” Most of the company’s money is made selling lighting dissipation systems to the oil and gas industry of the American West and around the world.
Kaiser disputed Mata’s contention that a Lighting Master air terminal merely redirects lightning to objects a short distance away. His rebuttal referenced the decades-long info-war pitting conventional purveyors of lighting protection systems against “non-conventional” actors such as Lightning Master. “The reality is that this is actually more likely to happen with the conventional Franklin rod than it is with our rod. That’s one of their dirty little secrets,” Kaiser said.
Non-conventional systems purport to reduce the likelihood of strikes or prevent them altogether. They are called non-conventional because America’s science establishment—including standards-setting organizations—refuses to recognize their efficacy.
“All our product does: Those little wires break down the corona for a lower potential than a conventional lightning rod,” Kaiser said. In doing so, he said, the air terminal effectively sucks charge out of adjacent objects, precluding formation of a streamer:
“If there’s gong to be a strike in that area, where is all that ground charge going to be? It’s going to be on the dissipator. The charge next to it has been moved to the dissapator to be dissipated off into the air. If anything forms a streamer, it will be our air terminal. And to the best of my knowledge there has never been a strike near our air terminals, whereas there have been strikes near conventional lightning rods all the time.”
As applied to boats, conventional lightning protection (invented by Benjamin Franklin) combines a lightning rod, bonding of metal components and an effective ground. The lightning rod does not attract (or repel) lightning, it merely provides the easiest path to ground for a strike that was going to happen anyway. Properly designed, that path to ground channels lightning away from people and prevents damage to structures. Best practice nowadays is to incorporate surge protectors wherever electronic devices are concentrated, like they are on boats.
Brian Bosley is a tech entrepreneur who owns a 50-foot Voyage Yachts catamaran named Senergy that he docks in the lightning-rich environment of St. Augustine, Florida. Bosely was skeptical about the effectiveness of the Forespar Lightning Master, but he had one installed as “cheap insurance.” Replacing his electronics from a lightning strike would cost at least $100,000, so a couple hundred bucks for a fuzzy air terminal was no big deal, he said.
Today’s story focuses on one angle of what is a complex topic. Loose Cannon will publish more stories about lightning protection as we get into Florida’s thunderstorm season, otherwise known as summer. Please consider a paid subscription to support work that you will never see in the mainstream marine media.
Since then, lightning has struck his boat twice, Bosely said. He knows he was struck because he was on board both times (experiences he described as “scary as fuck”). A rigging inspection after the second strike showed that lightning had attached to the upper shroud about a foot and a half away from the static dissipator, as indicated by discoloration of the steel cable due to intense heat.
Except for the discoloration, there was no other the damage, a fact that Bosely credits to a second, state-of-the-art conventional lightning protection system, independent of the Forespar device.
Kaiser said Bosely’s experience with his product merely demonstrates that no lightning protection system is 100-percent effective. He said the Lightning Master air terminal can be overwhelmed with charge at times and rendered unable to dissipate enough charge fast enough to prevent the formation of a streamer.
It should be noted that Forespar and Lightning Master are not alone in the static dissipator marine market. There have been several over years, including the maker of the No Strike mentioned at the beginning of this story. Currently the Turkish company MTO makes something it calls EvoDis, which looks like a pair of bottle brushes bent into a radius. Lightning Master, however, remains the most prominent player in the marine market because of its partnership with Forespar and, as a result, distribution through the West Marine retailer.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has a standard for protecting watercraft from lightning that incorporates the latest thinking on the subject. The American Boat and Yacht Council, which sets safety standards for vessel construction and maintenance, has a technical paper on lightning protection that reflects lightning protection science as it stood two decades ago. Neither recognizes static dissipators as a method of lightning protection.
In 2016, four energy companies consolidated their complaints in a single lawsuit against Lightning Master, filed in Frio County, Texas, seeking $5 million in damages. In another case in 2018, an insurance company sued Lightning Master in Martin County, Texas, representing yet another energy firm.
Both cases involved strikes at saltwater disposal facilities protected by Lightning Master dissipators. Saltwater is a byproduct of oil and gas drilling, and storage in fiberglass tanks is part of the disposal process. Both cases allege that lightning strikes started fires that damaged facilities and caused the companies to slow or stop production.
Here’s what lawyers for one of the plaintiff companies wrote:
The DAS lightning prevention system of the defendant was represented as a system that prevents lightning strikes by dissipating the “corona” or charged ions that collect over a facility immediately before a lightning strike. The system was designed to protect the NGL facilites in question from property damage and income losses by “preventing” lightning from striking…Defendant knew or at the very least had abundant reason to know there was no valid scientific basis for its claim that a DAS system would cause lightning strikes to not occur.
DAS stands for Dissipation Array System. Lightning Master calls its system a Streamer Delaying Air Terminal or SDAT. Forespar refers to it as a Lighting Master static dissipator. It can be confusing for the layperson, but lightning experts say the proferred technology behind the terminology is basically the same.
Lightning Master denied responsibility in both cases. Before both cases were settled without going to trial, plaintiffs’ lawyers had hired the same expert witness to debunk Lightning Master’s technology, Kevin Ray Davis. He’s known in his field as KR, and, among other credits, Davis worked for three years as electrical engineering manager at Hatteras Yachts, where he oversaw installation of conventional lightning protection systems.
In his report to the court, Davis wrote:
The points on a Lightning Master air brush terminal do not dissipate anything that would affect in any way the completion of a lightning strike. My survey of the peer reviewed literature supports the fact that the air brush terminals supplied by Lightning Master cannot and do not dissipate the ion particles in the air to the point of affecting in any way the occurrence of lighting strikes. It is my opinion that this is a well known scientific fact, well understood within the scientific community at large.
Kaiser told Loose Cannon that the fires would not have happened if energy company employees had not tampered with grounding systems on the saltwater tanks. He said he had opposed paying a settlement. “When you buy insurance, you are assigning to the insurance company the right to do whatever they want. We wanted to fight it. They wanted to settle,” Kaiser said.
What about Forespar, a longstanding and respected player in the marine industry? Forespar’s Lightning Master literature includes a disclaimer:
We do not claim that this product is 100 percent effective in preventing a lightning strike. At the present collective level of understanding of the lightning phenomenon, no one can make that claim. This product does control the causes of lightning strikes and thereby reduces the incidence of direct strikes.
Mata and other scientists may agree with the sentiment of the first two sentences, while vehemently disputing the third. Yet it is this notion—that the multi-wire terminal at the top of the mast can somehow lower the likelihood of a strike—that is the dominant sales pitch in Forespar’s literature as well as this YouTube video featuring a convivial spokesman.
Then there’s this 48-second YouTube video which consists entirely of a lightning-struck sailboat being hauled from the water by a crane and ends with the words: “Don’t let a lightning strike sink your boat. Protect yourself with Forespar’s Lightning Master.”
Emails were sent to Forespar’s top leadership asking for comment. None of the four individuals, including Forespar CEO Scott Foresman, replied, nor did they acknowlege receipt. Summarizing Mata’s credentials and his position on their product, Loose Cannon wrote:
I would be concerned that customers were making their decisions about when, where and how to use their boats based on faith and an assumption that your product is protecting them against lightning when Mata and many, if not most, credible lightning scientists believe Forespar's claims are not supported by science.
West Marine also sells the Forespar Lightning Master and has for over a decade. Chuck Hawley was vice-president for product information when the nationwide retailer added the product to its catalog. Hawley was initially skeptical of lightning dissipation technology in general, but he said it was not his job to approve new products. According to Hawley, his technical advisor asked an acquaintance at Florida Power and Light, the state’s biggest utility, who said that dissipators “did not appear to make the situation worse.”
Parting shots from today’s protagonists:
Kaiser on Mata:
Put him up against the risk management officers at the Fortune 500 companies that keep buying our system. This guy is a speck of dust in the universe compared to these big companies, who know what works.
Mata on Forespar and Lightning Master:
"I believe that some of the people that are selling these things are blind. They just don’t have the knowledge. The architects of these things? I believe they know these things don’t work. By that, I mean the designers in the high-voltage labs and what have you. They know these things don’t do what they claim they do."