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What Does an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) Do?

Ocotec - what does an EMP do?
The impact of an EMP on electronic devices is severe and multifaceted. From disabling microelectronics in personal devices to causing widespread power outages and disrupting critical infrastructure, the effects can be catastrophic.

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With this article, we will begin a series covering in detail the concrete effects of various types of electromagnetic interference on vulnerable systems. Here in this first part we will take a deeper look at the effects of electromagnetic pulses. In a previous article, we covered what exactly an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is. Now we will examine in greater detail what the effects of such on event are on vulnerable electronic and electrical systems. An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) can cause a variety of adverse effects on electronic devices, from temporary malfunctions to permanent damage. First we will have a quick run-through of the three components of an EMP and how the three components (E1, E2, and E3) and their different effects.


E1 Component
:

  • Duration: Nanoseconds.
  • Nature: High-frequency (up to GHz range).
  • Impact: Induces very high voltages and currents in conductors over a short duration, damaging microelectronics.


E2 Component
:

  • Duration: Microseconds.
  • Nature: Similar to lightning-induced surges.
  • Impact: Medium-frequency burst, typically less destructive than E1 but can still cause damage especially if combined with E1.

 

E3 Component:

  • Duration: Seconds to minutes.
  • Nature: Low-frequency (up to tens of Hz).
  • Impact: Induces geomagnetic currents in long conductors like power lines, potentially damaging transformers and power infrastructure.

 

Microelectronics

Computers and Laptops: These devices contain numerous microchips and integrated circuits that are highly sensitive to voltage spikes. The E1 component of an EMP can induce voltages high enough to fry these components almost instantaneously. EMPs can couple into the power lines and signal lines connected to computers and servers, causing spikes that exceed the voltage tolerance of components like processors, memory, and storage drives. This would result in the loss of data, inability to boot, and potential damage to storage devices like hard drives and SSDs. Even if the hardware remains intact, the induced currents can corrupt data stored on these devices.

Integrated Circuits: EMPs induce differential voltages across pins and tracks within ICs. The E1 pulse, with its rapid rise time, generates extremely high dV/dt (rate of voltage change over time), causing dielectric breakdown and melting of semiconductor junctions. This results in short circuits, open circuits, or complete destruction of the ICs.

Transistors and Diodes: The high electric fields from an E1 pulse can cause avalanche breakdown in transistors and diodes, leading to thermal runaway and physical damage. This results in irreversible failure of active components, preventing the device from functioning.

Smartphones and Tablets: Similar to computers, smartphones and tablets are packed with delicate microelectronics. The E1 pulse can render them useless by damaging their internal circuitry, disrupting the functioning of processors, memory chips, and other critical components. Additionally, these devices rely on wireless communication networks, which would likely be disrupted, rendering the devices useless even if they are not directly damaged.

Medical Devices: Life-supporting medical devices such as pacemakers, insulin pumps, and hospital equipment like MRI machines and ventilators are extremely vulnerable. An EMP can cause these devices to malfunction or fail completely, posing a direct threat to patients’ lives. The E1 pulse can disrupt their operation, while the E3 pulse can cause power outages, leading to secondary failures due to the lack of power supply.

 

Communication Systems

Radio and Television Transmitters: These systems rely on electronic components and power supplies susceptible to EMP effects. The E1 pulse can damage transmitters, rendering them inoperative, while the E3 pulse can affect the power grid, leading to overvoltage conditions in transmitters, which then leads to prolonged outages and communication blackouts.

Cell Towers and Satellites: Cell towers contain sophisticated electronics and are critical for mobile communication. The E1 component directly damages base station electronics, while E3-induced currents can damage power supplies. This causes communication outages and potentially physical damage to tower infrastructure.

Satellites, though in space, can be affected by high-altitude EMPs (HEMPs). The radiation can damage satellite electronics, disrupting GPS, communication, and weather services.

Internet Infrastructure: Routers, modems, and data centres are all vulnerable to EMPs. The E1 pulse can damage the electronic components within these devices, leading to widespread internet outages. Moreover, the E3 pulse can couple into the power lines and signal lines connected to computers and servers, causing spikes that exceed the voltage tolerance of components like processors, memory, and storage drives. This results in corrupted data, fried circuits, and potential loss of stored information.

 

Power Grid

Transformers and Substations: The E3 component of an EMP induces geomagnetic currents that can overload and damage transformers and other critical infrastructure within substations. These devices are not designed to handle the high currents induced by an EMP, leading to overheating, physical damage, and failures. This can result in large-scale power outages, transformer burnouts, and prolonged repair times. As for substations, failure of protective systems leads to further cascading failures in the power grid.

Home Electrical Systems: Household circuits and electrical systems can be affected by an EMP. Surge protectors might offer some defense against the E2 component, but the E1 pulse can still damage the internal wiring of homes, and the E3 pulse can cause prolonged power outages affecting all electrical appliances.

 

Vehicles

Cars: Most modern vehicles are equipped with numerous electronic control units (ECUs) that manage everything from the engine to the braking system. The E1 pulse can disrupt or destroy these units, causing the vehicle to fail. This results in loss of control over vehicle functions such as ignition, braking, and fuel injection.

Aircraft: Commercial and military aircraft rely heavily on electronic systems for navigation, communication, and control. An EMP can incapacitate these systems, potentially leading to catastrophic failures mid-flight. The E1 pulse can damage the avionics, while the E3 pulse can affect the ground-based control systems and power supplies.

 

Consumer Electronics

Home Appliances: Devices such as refrigerators, washing machines, and microwaves contain electronic control boards that can be damaged by an EMP. The E1 pulse can induce high voltages that burn out these control boards, rendering the appliances inoperative.

Entertainment Devices: Televisions, gaming consoles, and audio systems are all at risk. The delicate electronics inside these devices can be destroyed by the E1 pulse, while power surges from the E3 pulse can also damage these devices indirectly by affecting the power supply.

Industrial and Commercial Systems

Manufacturing Equipment: Many modern manufacturing processes are automated and rely on electronic controls. An EMP can halt production by damaging these control systems, leading to significant economic losses.

Banking and Financial Systems: Electronic banking relies on networks of computers and servers. An EMP can disrupt these systems, leading to loss of financial data, inability to process transactions, and significant economic disruption.

 

Protection and Mitigation

Shielding devices with Faraday cages can block EMP radiation by providing a conductive enclosure that absorbs and redistributes the electromagnetic energy. High-quality surge protectors can help mitigate the effects of the E2 component by clamping high voltages and protecting connected devices. Designing critical infrastructure to withstand EMPs involves using EMP-resistant materials, redundant systems, and robust grounding. Ensuring backup power supplies and redundant communication systems are in place and protected against EMP effects is crucial for maintaining essential services.

The impact of an EMP on electronic devices is severe and multifaceted. From disabling microelectronics in personal devices to causing widespread power outages and disrupting critical infrastructure, the effects can be catastrophic. Understanding these specific impacts underscores the importance of protective measures and preparedness to mitigate the potential damage caused by an EMP. At Ocotec, we offer a wide range of EMP-shielded products as part of our catalogue, from cabinets, enclosures, tunnels and chambers to crew hatches. With our know-how and experienced design and production team, we can also design and provide new, customised solutions for your specific shielding needs. Your systems are safe with us.

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