When Mother Earth discovers her archaic nature, man becomes very small. Earthquakes are an elementary force of nature against which hardly any protection is possible. It is therefore all the more important that those affected are warned as early as possible and can get to safety. In Castrop-Rauxel, North Rhine-Westphalia, an early warning device has been developed that can ensure the crucial time needed for this.
When it comes to earthquakes, one thinks of huge catastrophes, tidal waves and colliding earth plates. Our planet’s interior is much less explored than, say, the surface of the Moon, Mars or other distant celestial bodies. If the Earth’s crust, which is perceived to be so safe, moves all at once, it causes panic at the mildest, and hundreds of thousands die at the worst. And predicting such an event is considered impossible.
In search of the company Secty electronics, I drove and walked past the building three times. Expecting a large research center or at least an imposing start-up with glass and marble, I smoothly overlooked the doorbell button on a side street in the Ruhrpott town of Castrop-Rauxel. With a friendly hello, the door is opened and I am prevented from looking any further. And poof, I find myself in the heart of a global company that can save millions of lives and still doesn’t exceed the footprint of an average two-room apartment.
Two inconspicuous-looking basic modules of the “secty lifePatron” are waiting on the table in the meeting room. As its developer and company boss Jürgen Przybylak explains to me, this is the main control unit that houses the entire intelligence with the mathematical algorithm of earthquake detection, distributed between masters and submasters. But before we get to the devices, Przybylak first explains the basics of earthquake science:
Earthquakes warn of itself
“Every earthquake consists of a primary and a secondary wave. These wave movements of the earth’s surface occur when tensions in the earth’s crust are released, whether by continental plate movements, volcanic eruptions, explosions or even collapses of large cavities. The primary wave, the so-called p‑wave, always runs ahead. It is not perceptible to humans. Only the secondary or s‑wave that follows has the destructive potential. The p‑wave travels twice as fast as the s‑wave, so it always reaches the respective location first. The time difference between the appearance of the harmless p‑wave and the destructive s‑wave depends on the distance to the place of origin, the epicenter and the depth of the quake.”
You can tell that the 62-year-old technician is a well-traveled expert who is used to looking at initially incredulous faces. “Everyone always expects at least one professor when I present our solution,” he smiles mischievously. The down-to-earth globetrotter has long since stopped being afraid of an audience: “After all, I know about the quality of our product.” Przybylak is a convincing ambassador of the Secty lifePatron.
At first, the pure warning times are not very impressive. “At about 40 kilometers from the epicenter, the difference between p- and s‑waves is 8 to 12 seconds. At 120 kilometers, the time grows to 24 to 36 seconds.” But those seconds make the difference between death and devastation or safe survival. “In countless experiments and studies, it has been found that people take between 10 and 16 seconds to even realize that a major earthquake has struck. Only then do they try to run to safety. And that’s while the s‑wave is having its destructive effect, because the p‑wave was not perceived.”
Every second counts
This is exactly where the “Secty lifePatron” comes in: “We can reliably detect and analyze the p‑wave. Reliable means that we can filter out sources of error such as trucks rumbling past. And we can use the p‑wave to predict whether the following s‑wave will actually be dangerous. No other device in the world can do that. As a result, people trust our system – if an alarm is triggered, then it’s really serious. So we give people the most valuable thing they need: Time.”
But still only a few seconds. “That’s what the German ambassador in Kazakhstan said, too.” Jürgen Przybylak remembers it well: “That was my first trade show in 2005; I was invited to an evening dinner at the time. I then just asked him how long it would take him to reach the next door out now.” The smile on the diplomat’s face gave way to an interested expression.
Przybylak draws attention to a crucial feature: “And during this time, automatic safety systems can, for example, shut off the gas supply, secure elevators, release door systems. A lot of damage doesn’t occur until after the earthquake, with escaping gas triggering explosions or power lines being destroyed, making utilities unusable.”
Development from pigeon racing
But how is the p‑wave measured? And how does a technician from the Ruhr area get his hands on a technology that could be vital for millions of people? Jürgen Przybylak smiles: “By chance. We had developed sensors for international pigeon racing, in which the flying high-performance athletes triggered a timing system when they came into contact with a perch. Then in 2003, the Helmholtz Zentrum Potsdam, German Geoscience Research Institute approached us with the question of whether we could also measure a completely different form of vibration with our sensor. Potsdam provided us with the algorithm for analyzing the p‑wave for this purpose. And from this, we developed the Secty lifePatron in cooperation with the scientists.”
At the time, the trained electronics technician was affected by the change in the coalfield. As an employee of the central testing department, he was offered the chance to leave the Ruhrkohle company with a severance package. He took the risk, used his know-how and contacts and actually found the right components for an early warning system.
From the Pütt into the world
“The deal was that the scientists would contribute their expertise in p- and s‑waves, and we would develop the sensor technology. For example, it was known that strong earthquakes have a frequency of 0 to 15 hertz; anything above that is harmless. Other factors such as acceleration and intensity make it possible to analyze the p‑wave. In 2005, we had the first prototype ready, which we patented. The distribution was and still is with us. The result is a device that can not only detect earthquakes. But above all, it is also capable of NOT triggering when vibrations are caused by passing trucks, for example. Because false alarms are dangerous. They cause people to become deadened.”
The first devices were still recorded with a mixture of astonishment and disbelief. In the meantime, the forewarning system has been decorated with numerous awards and, of course, further developed. The first installations took Jürgen Przybylak to Pakistan and Afghanistan, directly into Taliban strongholds. But: “No matter where we go, we are always treated with respect. Anyone who has ever experienced an earthquake knows how terrible it can be. So everyone is grateful if a little help is given.”
Today, there is hardly a earthquake-prone region on this planet that Przybylak has not traveled to. “Our systems run everywhere, are now adapted to the most adverse environmental conditions, extreme climates and, thanks to their foolproof operation, are in permanent use even in areas with very low levels of education. The aim is to install a system that will run in the long term. This does not only include the technical installation. We are often on site several times to train the population – for example, to implement test and training drills before, during and after an earthquake.”
Today, however, the system is of little interest to the scientific community. Although the device would not have had a basis without the support of the Geoforschungszentrum Potsdam, Przybylak sums up, “the lifePatron is precisely not a scientific device, but designed for practical use in the field and also a commercial success.”
Use in building management
The Secty lifePatron can be operated as a stand-alone solution, i.e. only with the master and a second unit called submaster. “These two units permanently monitor each other to rule out false alarms caused by rough contact, for example,” explains Jürgen Przybylak. “The system works with a 12/24 V DC or a 110/230 V AC power supply as well as a redundant battery emergency power supply. The only important thing is that the units are mounted on concrete foundations. The system is expandable to cover larger buildings or areas.”
In addition to direct use to warn people, the system can of course also be used in building services and industrial plants. For example, Secty lifePatron protects the gas supply of Stadtwerke Basel by automatically closing solenoid valves there with the system. Or the control center of a power plant, where the supply ventilation is switched off in the event of an alarm.
Jürgen Przybylak is convinced of his system: “We have had to avoid many pitfalls. But the demand for our device is huge. Because Mother Earth never sleeps very deeply. And when she awakens, every second counts.”
This post is also available in: Deutsch