Lightning Strikes for Robiah Ibrahim

25 June 2018

Malaysian scientist Robiah Ibrahim is the first person to develop a new lightning rod placement system since 1876.

In 1969, a young girl in Johor picked up a copy of science magazine, Horizon. In that issue, she read about NASA’s Apollo 11 and the pioneer astronauts to first land on the moon. Fascinated and inspired by the story, 13-year-old Robiah Ibrahim’s curiosity for science was set in motion.

As an undergraduate, Robiah was one of a handful of female students in her electrical engineering programme at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), where she graduated with honours.

“Women made up only 10 percent of the class then,” she says.

Not long after, Robiah would become a pioneer herself, revolutionising global lightning protection standards. 

After graduating, Robiah worked as an engineer at Jabatan Telekom Malaysia (JTM). There, she began to notice something strange when the company started to modernise all its telecommunications systems.

"I soon realised that some of the new equipment easily became faulty due to lightning strikes,” she says. This technology soon became an industry standard, used in computers, control systems and fax machines. 

From 1988 to 1993, Robiah began to do her own research with husband Hartono Zainal Abidin, also an electrical engineer and award-winning lightning expert. “We are like Pierre and [first woman Nobel Prize winner] Marie Curie who did their research together in radioactive science,” she says on her research collaboration with her husband.

An area with tall buildings and frequent thunderstorms, the Klang Valley became the perfect testing ground for the duo’s study. Robiah calls it “a natural lightning laboratory”.

Robiah and Hartono’s first research paper, “A Method of Identifying the Lightning Strike Location on a Structure”, presented at the 1995 International Conference on Electromagnetic Compatibility in Kuala Lumpur.

They discovered lightning damage everywhere. Their research photos captured damage to structures such as the dome of the Kuala Lumpur railway station, the cross of a church, the corner of a Nestle factory, and even commercial bank buildings equipped with several lightning protection devices.

Building on the 1950s Rolling Sphere Method (RSM), Robiah and Hartono developed the Collection Surface Method (CSM) and presented their findings in1995 at the International Conference on Electromagnetic Compatibility in Kuala Lumpur. While RSM demonstrated the possible points that lightning could strike, CSM demonstrated the probability of different areas being struck by lightning. For the first time, lightning rods could be precisely placed on modern, complex-shaped buildings.

It was a huge discovery. If applied correctly, this method could make a building’s lightning protection system 98 percent effective. CSM also proved that Early Streamer Emission (ESE) rods, the type largely used in Malaysia, weren’t effective. 

“Our studies showed that [for] tall buildings installed with ESE air terminals since 1990, most of them had been struck repeatedly by lightning,” says Robiah.

International journals, conference proceedings, and magazines where Robiah's research has been published.

Using CSM, Robiah and Hartono solved major lightning problems that affected the Kelana Jaya LRT system, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and a Petronas oil refinery. Globally, the CSM solved lightning problems on structures such as the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport rail project in the US.

In 2003, the principles of CSM were even included in the Australian lightning protection standard, and later in 2006, the International Electrotechnical Commission’s (IEC) lightning protection standard.

As the first woman in the world to develop a new lightning rod placement system, it’s hard to imagine that Malaysian academics first rejected Robiah’s findings due to her lack of post-graduate qualifications and laboratory experience.

“For the last 23 years, the then Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment continued to ignore our scientific discovery even after we had informed them that it had been accepted in the IEC standard which they declared as the Malaysian standard in 2007,” says Robiah.

A map of global lightning frequency. Malaysia has one of the highest lightning flash frequencies in the world.

“The ministry was then not interested in scientific discoveries but in commercially viable inventions,” she continues, noting that the country has been using ESE air terminals for its buildings for the past 28 years.

“[As a result] Many of these buildings have been struck and seriously damaged by lightning.”

But Robiah is not deterred by these challenges. She advises young scientists to “have perseverance and be persistent on what they hope to achieve.”

“No matter how long and winding the road to success can be, they should never give up hope.”

By Lily Jamaludin
Photos by Wong Yok Teng

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