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Graduate student creates material to protect aircraft, wind turbines from lightning strikes

Dilli Dhakal, an OSU-Tulsa student pursuing a master's degree in materials science and engineering, tests the product he created to protect wind turbines and aircraft from lightning damage.

OSU-Tulsa materials science and engineering student Dilli Dhakal invented a material that can keep lightning from damaging aircraft and wind turbines, a development that has caught the attention of global conglomerate General Electric.

Under the guidance of Dr. Ranji Vaidyanathan, Varnadow Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Dhakal designed the new technology to be lighter and more durable than current materials.

“As a major wind turbine manufacturer, GE is a potential customer. They are really enthusiastic about our project,” Dhakal said. “GE wrote a letter of support for our project and we included that in our application for a $5,000 VentureWell grant. I think that’s a big part of why we got it.”

The VentureWell grant will be used toward moving the product to the commercial market.

Conductivity is key

Lightning strikes to airliners and wind turbines are common. They can cause significant damage that lead to down time and costly repairs, making mitigation systems crucial to the manufacturer’s bottom line.

Dhakal said the material he developed reduces repair costs by 50 percent and enables the airplane or wind turbine to continue functioning even after multiple lightning strikes.

Currently, manufacturers use copper or aluminum mesh to protect against lightning damage.

Dhakal’s commercial product, the Thunderbolt series, is available in both spray and film form. It is applied to create a thin conductive film on the surface or between layers of composite materials during the manufacturing process.

The challenge for Dhakal was to ensure the material provides the conductivity necessary to force lightning’s electricity away from the structure and leave the turbine or airplane unscathed, he said.

Research to commercialization

In 2016, Dhakal enrolled at OSU-Tulsa to pursue a master’s degree in materials science and engineering. He holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in physics from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal.

After receiving an offer to enroll at another Oklahoma university in engineering, he declined because the program didn’t meet his research interests.

“I found out that OSU-Tulsa is the only university in the state with a materials science program,” he said. “I also really like that the emphasis is on doing research that can be commercialized and have a direct impact in the market.”

To move the Thunderbolt series to market, Vaidyanathan introduced Dhakal to OSU entrepreneurship and management student ShawnDea Dunzy and encouraged the two to form a business partnership.

Dhakal was happily surprised when Dunzy came up with the perfect company name.

“I didn’t have an idea. But she suggested Indra, the Hindu god of lightning. Hindu is the majority religion in my country," he said.. "It worked out perfectly.”

Indra won second place in the High Tech division of the 2018 accelerateOSU Business Plan Competition on Feb. 16.

“Right now, we are producing the product on a lab scale, but I look forward to growing the business,” Dhakal said. “Our company will eventually hire people, make a profit and pay taxes that will directly benefit the Oklahoma economy and the people of the state.”

OSU entrepreneurship and finance student ShawnDea Dunzy, left, OSU-Tulsa materials science and engineering graduate student Dilli Dhakal and Dr. Ranji Vaidyanathan, OSU-Tulsa's Varnadow Professor of Materials Science and Engineering celebrate the students' second-place win in the High Tech division in the accelerateOSU Business Plan Competition on Feb. 16.