The Lords of Lightning

When these colleagues get going, local public utilities have to put in extra shifts. Trabtech’s lightning protection laboratory enjoys a legendary reputation and is home to countless developments that protect us from atmospheric mischief, especially in the face of increasingly severe climate change.

If you were cynical, you would say that the Trabtech business unit is one of the beneficiaries of climate change. After all, what increased temperature makes our planet warmer ends up in our atmosphere in the form of water vapor and energy, among other things. And these are the building blocks that make up thunderstorms. Their intensity is steadily increasing.

Arno Kiefer

However, Arno Kiefer is not entirely comfortable with this bold assessment. The Director Market Development is the sales voice of the lightning makers. He emphasizes: “Actually, the number of thunderstorms is not increasing. What is increasing, however, is the combination of regenerative energy sources, volatile energy grids and all kinds of control electronics. And all of that wants and needs to be protected from surges.”

An attention that cannot be taken for granted. Arno Kiefer sighs: “Every electrical system functions without lightning protection to begin with. The need for it is usually only considered after damage has occurred. So you really only need us when it’s already too late. Even more so when you know that not every country has the legal requirements that exist in Germany.”


Lightning is a particularly imposing form of energy discharge. They can reach a thunderstorm voltage of up to 1.3 billion volts (previous record holder in India) or have the enormous length of over 700 kilometers (measured by satellite over Brazil). Lightning is most frequent over Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo (up to 240 nights per year). And the longest-lasting single flash lit up the sky for 16.73 seconds (sighted in Argentina in 2019).

In comparison, a “normal” summer thunderstorm seems almost like a mild breeze, with lightning bolts with an average strength of around 100,000 amperes and a voltage of around 100 million volts either raging between the clouds or racing towards the earth.

This is also possible in Blomberg: If all reserves are mobilized in Phoenix Contact’s lightning protection laboratory, then lightning intensities of up to 100,000 amperes are also possible here. “As a rule, however, we work with much less energy,” explains Arno Kiefer, “because a natural lightning bolt will only enter the building with half the force, and the other half is discharged via the ground. And in the feed, the rest is then distributed once again.”

When the tension takes over

Lightning is only one form of overvoltage that can cause damage to electrical and electronic equipment. Albeit a particularly drastic one that has the greatest destructive potential. To protect against it, you need external lightning protection that dissipates the electrical discharge along a defined conductive path and does not allow it into the house or onto electrical equipment. Even an impact some distance away can be enough to trigger damage to in-house installations.
An entirely different form of surge occurs when large current collectors trigger switching operations. These switching operations create highly unwelcome disturbances in power grids that can be so severe that they also cause destructive surges.

An order of magnitude smaller are the overvoltages caused by electrostatic discharges. They occur when bodies with different electrostatic potentials approach each other and charge is exchanged, for example on conveyor belts in logistics and production. Sensitive electronic devices and systems are affected here.

After fire and storms, surges cause the most damage. In 2012, they accounted for around 18 percent of all insured losses. And the trend is rising, because our modern world is becoming increasingly electronic and networked. More and more and increasingly sensitive electronic devices determine everyday life in private households, but also in commercial and industrial facilities. At the same time, it is not only the potential of thunderstorms that is increasing. Our energy grids also have to cope with changing amounts of electricity as renewable energy generators feed into the grid. This is often resented by the consumers who depend on it, who would prefer to have it always steady and constant.

Small lab with big successes

The history of the Blomberg lightning projectors began quite unspectacularly in a small building on the edge of the large Phoenix Contact company premises. Plant 3 was the first and long-standing home of the surge current laboratory. This is where numerous ideas were born, where people thought, tinkered, tried out, and filed several patents. A small laboratory with great successes, as Arno Kiefer notes with pride.

But at some point, the rooms were simply no longer sufficient – planning for a new building began. And if nothing else, the new home of the business unit was not only to include a laboratory, but also to take on representative tasks and become the home of the associated offices. In 2014, the building was ceremoniously inaugurated.

A place of destruction

Frank Schäfer

Et voilà, today we are standing behind a large pane of glass separating us from the artificial natural events, watching Arno Kiefer and deputy lab manager Frank Schäfer try to push clamped-in safety modules to the edge of their load-bearing capacity. “And preferably a bit beyond that,” grins Schäfer, who has been working with surges for 14 years. “Our lab is unique because not only do we have extensive technical capabilities here, but we can also perform all the testing required for any conceivable approval in the electrical field. Our accredited laboratory is independent, so it also tests products that are not manufactured by Phoenix Contact.” Competitor products as well? “Yes, we have a special role here and are also obliged to maintain confidentiality within the scope of this activity.”

In Blomberg in particular, the capabilities of the Phoenix Contact laboratories enjoy an almost reverential reputation. The lightning laboratory is located directly on one of the two power supply lines of the small town in eastern Westphalia. Due to a system fault, the lights actually went out briefly in half the town in the early days. “Today, this is technically impossible, but back then it was of course a first-class excitement,” Arno Kiefer knows to report.

The reputation as one of the most exciting research laboratories of Phoenix Contact precedes the lords of lightning: Especially among the electrical trade, visitor tours under expert guidance are highly sought after.

New tasks

This is not always about conventional protection in the familiar AC networks. The topic of DC grids is increasingly coming into focus in the context of the increased expansion of renewable energies. Photovoltaics, in particular, mostly produce direct current, which is then not only fed into the grids, but also adjusted via converters or stored in battery systems. “These different sources and their characteristics are still uncharted territory in terms of overvoltages and faulty behavior. Here, we are researching at full speed in order to develop customized products for the different systems in the future,” says Kiefer, who is not very worried about his future prospects.

Phoenix Contact Surge Protection
Phoenix Contact Trabtech Whitepaper

Back to top button