Students help businessman study impact of lightning strikes

When he was in 10th grade, a near hit from a bolt of lightning threw Sam Gasque 20 feet into the air and slammed him into a wall. Now the businessman is fighting back with the help of students in Mark Azadpour’s electrical engineering class at Western Carolina University.

Gasque, an inventor and president of ZapGuard Inc. in Asheville, is working on a new kind of surge protection monitoring system for highway lighting – one that will show whether the protection device on each light pole is still working after strong power surges or lightning strikes.

In the first phase of this project, electrical engineering majors Brandon Sales and Curtis Johnson are working on Azadpour’s design for a new, very small circuit board prototype in Western’s electrical engineering lab. Squeezed into an ordinary surge protector, the board should be able to monitor the operation of metal oxide varistors, or MOVs, which are designed to withstand large spikes of electricity and allow only safe voltage to pass through.

Currently, MOVs give no warning if they are burned out. But Gasque believes that measuring the heat generated from a MOV as it is degrading will indicate whether the surge protector has been compromised and is likely to fail.

Azadpour, assistant professor of electrical engineering at WCU, was enthusiastic about having his students work on this project. “As an educator, my job is to teach students. What better way than to have them work on real products with real benefits? We have the ability to do major designs and prototyping of various electronic systems in our labs, and we’re always looking for ways to partner with businesses throughout the region.”

Johnson, a sophomore from Cary and a 2004 graduate of Green Hope High School, said he has enjoyed building the little circuit board. “I’ve learned a lot and put my theoretical background to work,” he said. “And this keeps me current with what’s going on in industry.”

Sales, a junior from Asheville and a 2003 graduate of Reynolds High School who is working toward a career as a test engineer, agreed. “It’s kind of cool,” he said. “This give me a sense of accomplishment.”

If his idea for a MOV-heat-detector works with Western’s prototype circuit board, Gasque says he plans to create a device that will allow light pole surge protectors to be checked quickly and conveniently with remote sensors in the hands of highway workers who are driving by.

For more information about electrical engineering or any programs in WCU’s Kimmel School of Construction Management, Engineering and Technology, call (828) 227-2159 or visit