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Are Your Electronics Protected Against Sudden Surges?

Electrical engineer Sarah Seguin discusses with Robert J. Marks an under-recognized risk for sensitive electronic devices

In a recent podcast, “Sarah Seguin on EMPs and How to Protect Your Data” (August 5, 2021), Sarah Seguin, talks with Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks.

Sarah Seguin

Protecting data became a much bigger issue for typical employees during the COVID-19 lockdowns when many were working from home on a computer usually used to surf entertainment vids or shopping sites. Hackers have found the displaced workers a tempting target. In any event, hacks of governments, health care facilities, and big firms are on the increase. Seguin offers some thoughts about a quite different but very relevant data protection issue: Protecting data from degradation from electromagnetic pulses (EMPs):

This portion begins at 02:12 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Robert J. Marks: EMPs are electromagnetic pulses. They come from lightning, the sun, nuclear explosions, and man-made weapons. We hear about EMPs disabling electronics. We hear that your cell phone would be wrecked and your car would be disabled because of the electronics would be fried. And I tell you as an electrical engineer, not specializing in this area, the more I look into this, the more concerned I become.

Our guest today is Dr. Sarah Seguin. She is an expert in the area of electromagnetic compatibility. Dr. Seguin was formerly on the faculty at the University of Kansas, she then developed the software business, Third Iron, and now is doing research at Baylor University…

Both you and I are electrical engineers and we are pretty diverse. Our parent society, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) has over 400,000 members divided into numerous individual specialty societies. … Could you describe the general field of electromagnetic compatibility?

Sarah Seguin: Yes, I’d be happy to. It’s a very large field and I am currently Chair of the Spectrum Engineering Committee, a subcommittee of the IEEE society, electromagnetic compatibility.

Basically electromagnetic compatibility is based on the fact that all active devices radiate electromagnetic energy. And the fact that I am talking to you through my computer and I have a cell phone right next to me and my microphone is working, and everything is just working seamlessly is electromagnetic compatibility. And it’s, non-trivial. Basically all of these devices by just simply being turned on, radiate electromagnetic energy, and we want it to not interfere with other devices.

A very good example of an electromagnetic compatibility issue is that all of us have set our cell phones next to an inexpensive speaker. And right before it rings, or maybe before we receive a text message, you hear a little bit of buzz, right? Well that’s because those speakers aren’t shielded against that energy that is being induced within that circuit from your cell phone. Now, of course there are expensive speakers that can handle this. But the generally cheap computer speakers, et cetera, can’t. So electromagnetic compatibility is basically the fact that we take for granted that all of our devices work together when we turn them on and there’s no interference.

Robert J. Marks: So a specific type of electromagnetic compatibility is the EMP, the electromagnetic pulse. What are EMPs and maybe you could discuss some of their sources?

Sarah Seguin: Well, one of the biggest and most well-known sources for electromagnetic pulses are nuclear detonations. So of course, a nuclear detonation has all sorts of physical issues. But before, and when they were testing the nuclear bomb, originally a nuclear detonation in the mid 1940s, it was discovered that semiconductor devices that were used to monitor these effects were actually destroyed. But they weren’t actually destroyed by the physical blast. They were destroyed by the electromagnetic pulse that comes before the blast.

Another source of electromagnetic pulses is lightning. And of course we have created electromagnetic pulses. There have been some governments that have been working on that as well that have been in the news recently.

Robert J. Marks: Okay. Now we hear that electromagnetic pulses fry or zap our electronics. What’s the physics behind this? What is going on that a electromagnetic pulse can disable your cell phone or your car or something like that?

Sarah Seguin: Well, again, it comes back to the whole electromagnetic compatibility issue here and how hardened your device is. What happens is, you have a very intense or powerful electromagnetic wave that’s emitted from, for example, a nuclear detonation. Or it could be created with electronics and a directional antenna. So then this intense electromagnetic wave basically causes current to be induced within the device.

Robert J. Marks: I’ve always heard that, for example, your AM radio is a result of electromagnetics being transmitted at the transmitter and you receive it. So it induces a current in your radio.

Sarah Seguin: That’s exactly what happens with AM radio, FM radio, all of it. You’re inducing current on the antenna that’s receiving it. So an electromagnetic pulse is really just like a really strong transmission that’s inducing currents on your electronics. Unfortunately, it’s in a way that we don’t like, and the electronics generally aren’t hardened for this or expect it.

Antennas are definite problem places where a device could be vulnerable to EMPs. But in addition, if you think about a circuit board where there’s a long trace to run current across, EMPs could also induce currents there.

Now inducing currents on a particular conductor is not necessarily the problem. The problem is when the semiconductors aren’t rated for those level of currents that are induced, and then could actually physically cause the electronics to fry. Like in the early or mid-1940s, when they discovered what was happening in the nuclear detonation tests.

Robert J. Marks

Robert J. Marks: You know, in prepping for our conversation here, I read that Enrico Fermi actually anticipated this and asked people to cover some of their electronics prior to the Manhattan Project explosion. Which I thought was very insightful.

Let’s talk about EMPs at a personal level. If an EMP goes off, we hear these fear things: Will it fry my cell phone? Could it cut off communication between cell phones? In other words, screw up the infrastructure of communications? Would it disable my car? Would it erase my flash drive or my computer memory? Are all of these true or some of them are true?

Sarah Seguin: Well, they could be true. It all depends on your proximity to the EMP.

Because of course we know that the wave propagation decreases the further away that you get from the source of the EMP … A lightning strike creates electromagnetic pulses; that’s a natural occurrence of electromagnetic pulses. If you are right next to it, especially if your devices aren’t hardened for lightning, for example, if it can go through your power system and if you don’t have protection through surge suppressors, then the answer is yes.

But from a whole system standpoint, could it completely bring down an entire area? Well, it really depends on the strength of the electromagnetic pulse.

Robert J. Marks: You’ve spoken a couple of times about hardening the electronics. How do you protect your electronics? You hear that there’s a bomb which is going to go off that’s going to generate an electromagnetic pulse. What do you do with your cell phone to protect it?

Sarah Seguin: Well, you would want it to be preferably in a shielded room. I don’t know about you I don’t have a shielded room hanging around my house.

Robert J. Marks: One thing that somebody suggested to me is microwave ovens. You know, microwave ovens are surrounded by a shell, a so-called Faraday cage, I believe that keeps the microwaves in. I think it should also keep the microwaves out. So I might go and put my cell phone in a microwave in order to protect it. And try to remember not to turn on the microwave oven while it’s in there.

Sarah Seguin: Yeah you could definitely hurt your electronics and your microwave, but actually that’s not a bad idea. Microwave ovens though are designed to specifically shield at the frequency, the resonance, of water, because that’s how they work. So it’s 2.45 GHz. And so in general it would probably do a pretty good job if you were far enough away from the EMP. So if it shields for 2.45 GHz, that means that you shield based on the wavelength. So 2.4 GHz, the wavelength is about 12.5 centimetres…

I think putting it in your microwave oven, it could be a really good choice for your cell phone provided that other infrastructure survives.

Robert J. Marks: One of the solutions I’ve also heard for protection is insertion of surge devices, surge protectors. The idea is that it’s the quick change of the electromagnetic pulse that does a lot of damage. Maybe by using surge detectors, you could protect your electronics. Is that true?

Sarah Seguin: Yes, it is definitely true, but you’d have to think about what it’s protecting against. So the surge protector is protecting against energy that comes from your outlets or, in some cases people have whole house search suppressors. Some laboratories have building surge suppressors.

These search suppressors are protecting against the large current that has been induced on the power lines from getting to your device and then therefore causing a damage through its power supply …

Robert J. Marks: So this would only work if there was an EMP explosion and it affected a power station that generated a surge on the line. If you were directly in the path of the EMP, it would fry your electronics and your cell phone directly. Is that right?

Sarah Seguin: That’s correct. Or it could. Part of the study of electromagnetic compatibility is figuring out where devices are vulnerable. That’s a whole study. And then basically hardening them where they’re vulnerable. So for example, your cell phone is probably going to be more vulnerable at the frequencies that it receives. If it receives Wi-Fi at about 2.4 GHz, depending on how close you are and how much of that frequency is in the electromagnetic pulse … your devices could definitely be fried without being coupled through the power line. It just depends on where the energy is coming from.

Robert J. Marks: Would an EMP destroy a flash drive, do you know?

Sarah Seguin: An EMP could destroy a flash drive. More likely it probably won’t destroy the specific data that’s stored, but it could destroy the electronics in which case you’d have to fix the electronics to recover the data. So for all intents and purposes, it has destroyed the data.

Robert J. Marks: I was having a conversation with, I believe, a guy with Microsoft, about the best way to store files. And it used to be you used floppy disks, then you had USB ports that could have up to a gigabytes on them. And now you can get a terabyte [device] on Amazon.com.

I found out that I tried to store some of my stuff on such devices and I went back in a year or two, it was totally unreadable, I don’t know where it went, but it was just destroyed. And then along came, read-writeable CDs, and DVDs. I tried to store a lot of stuff on those and also, in a couple of years, they turned out to be no good… the best place probably to store your stuff is on the cloud. And I’m wondering, and I don’t know, you probably don’t know either whether the cloud is protected from these EMPs.

Sarah Seguin: That’s a really excellent question. As a co-owner of a software company that is in the cloud, I have a little knowledge of the cloud, but I’m by no means a software engineer or a data center engineer. So what’s interesting about the cloud is that, in general, they have distributed data services. These distributed data services means that your data is not in any one place. And so by storing your data in the cloud, an EMP would have to capture everywhere that your data is. So it would be unlikely. In general… these data centers do have quite a bit of protection and security.

Now is your data safe from hackers? That’s a different question for a different podcast, but your data would be more protected from electromagnetic pulse by storing it in the cloud. That’s that’s for sure.

Robert J. Marks: I heard this too. Microsoft has three centers or more, and they would have it on the east coast, the west coast and in the south, And there is a redundancy there. If you lose one of these sites while you can still regain your information from another site, so they might be doing that instead of electromagnetic compatibility hardening. It’s just a thought.

Sarah Seguin: I think they do a little bit of both. I have known folks who work for IBM; they also have big data centers in the cloud as well. And in general, they are concerned about electromagnetic compatibility. They do employ EMC engineers… And so they do harden them a bit just by the fact that these really industrial servers just need to be hardened to work in a large room with a ton of servers. So it’s kind of a combination. But I imagine they don’t necessarily have military protection, if you will.

Next: Why we need to see EMPs as a serious threat

You may also wish to read: Chinese Communist party called out for cyber attacks. The DOJ has indicted members of state-backed hacker group APT40 for cyber crimes dating back to 2009. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has a list of Chinese-linked instances of economic cyberespionage that dates back to 2000.

Show Notes

  • 00:12 | Introduction
  • 02:12 | Electromagnetic Capability
  • 04:18 | Defining EMPs
  • 05:17 | The Physics behind EMPs
  • 07:43 | EMPs on the Personal Level
  • 09:11 | Protecting Electronics
  • 14:49 | EMPs and the Cloud

Additional Resources

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Are Your Electronics Protected Against Sudden Surges?