Electromagnetic pulse

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An electromagnetic pulse (EMP), also sometimes called a transient electromagnetic disturbance, is a short burst of electromagnetic energy. Such a pulse's origin may be a natural occurrence or man-made and can occur as a radiated, electric, or magnetic field or a conducted electric current, depending on the source.

Electromagnetic field Electric and magnetic fields produced by moving charged objects

An electromagnetic field is a physical field produced by moving electrically charged objects. It affects the behavior of non-comoving charged objects at any distance of the field. The electromagnetic field extends indefinitely throughout space and describes the electromagnetic interaction. It is one of the four fundamental forces of nature.

Electric field Vector field representing the Coulomb force per unit charge that would be exerted on a test charge at each point due to other electric charges

An electric field surrounds an electric charge, and exerts force on other charges in the field, attracting or repelling them. Electric field is sometimes abbreviated as E-field. The electric field is defined mathematically as a vector field that associates to each point in space the force per unit of charge exerted on an infinitesimal positive test charge at rest at that point. The SI unit for electric field strength is volt per meter (V/m). Newtons per coulomb (N/C) is also used as a unit of electric field strength. Electric fields are created by electric charges, or by time-varying magnetic fields. Electric fields are important in many areas of physics, and are exploited practically in electrical technology. On an atomic scale, the electric field is responsible for the attractive force between the atomic nucleus and electrons that holds atoms together, and the forces between atoms that cause chemical bonding. Electric fields and magnetic fields are both manifestations of the electromagnetic force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature.

Magnetic field Spatial distribution of vectors allowing the calculation of the magnetic force on a test particle

A magnetic field is a vector field that describes the magnetic influence of electric charges in relative motion and magnetized materials. The effects of magnetic fields are commonly seen in permanent magnets, which pull on magnetic materials and attract or repel other magnets. Magnetic fields surround and are created by magnetized material and by moving electric charges such as those used in electromagnets. They exert forces on nearby moving electrical charges and torques on nearby magnets. In addition, a magnetic field that varies with location exerts a force on magnetic materials. Both the strength and direction of a magnetic field vary with location. As such, it is described mathematically as a vector field.


EMP interference is generally disruptive or damaging to electronic equipment, and at higher energy levels a powerful EMP event such as a lightning strike can damage physical objects such as buildings and aircraft structures. The management of EMP effects is an important branch of electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) engineering.

Electromagnetic compatibility AE

Electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) is the ability of electrical equipment and systems to function acceptably in their electromagnetic environment, by limiting the unintentional generation, propagation and reception of electromagnetic energy which may cause unwanted effects such as electromagnetic interference (EMI) or even physical damage in operational equipment. The goal of EMC is the correct operation of different equipment in a common electromagnetic environment. It is also the name given to the associated branch of electrical engineering.

Weapons have been developed to deliver the damaging effects of high-energy EMP.

General characteristics

An electromagnetic pulse is a short burst of electromagnetic energy. Its short duration means that it will be spread over a range of frequencies. Pulses are typically characterized by:

The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and their respective wavelengths and photon energies.

The last two of these, the frequency spectrum and the pulse waveform, are interrelated via the Fourier transform and may be seen as two different ways of describing the same pulse.

Fourier transform mathematical transform that expresses a mathematical function of time as a function of frequency

The Fourier transform (FT) decomposes a function of time into its constituent frequencies. This is similar to the way a musical chord can be expressed in terms of the volumes and frequencies of its constituent notes. The term Fourier transform refers to both the frequency domain representation and the mathematical operation that associates the frequency domain representation to a function of time. The Fourier transform of a function of time is itself a complex-valued function of frequency, whose magnitude (modulus) represents the amount of that frequency present in the original function, and whose argument is the phase offset of the basic sinusoid in that frequency. The Fourier transform is not limited to functions of time, but the domain of the original function is commonly referred to as the time domain. There is also an inverse Fourier transform that mathematically synthesizes the original function from its frequency domain representation.

Types of energy

EMP energy may be transferred in any of four forms:

Electromagnetic radiation form of energy emitted and absorbed by charged particles, which exhibits wave-like behavior as it travels through space

In physics, electromagnetic radiation refers to the waves of the electromagnetic field, propagating (radiating) through space, carrying electromagnetic radiant energy. It includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared, (visible) light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays.

Due to Maxwell's equations, a pulse of any one form of electromagnetic energy will always be accompanied by the other forms, however in a typical pulse one form will dominate.

Maxwells equations set of partial differential equations that describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated and altered by each other and by charges and currents

Maxwell's equations are a set of coupled partial differential equations that, together with the Lorentz force law, form the foundation of classical electromagnetism, classical optics, and electric circuits. The equations provide a mathematical model for electric, optical, and radio technologies, such as power generation, electric motors, wireless communication, lenses, radar etc. Maxwell's equations describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated by charges, currents, and changes of the fields. An important consequence of the equations is that they demonstrate how fluctuating electric and magnetic fields propagate at a constant speed (c) in a vacuum. Known as electromagnetic radiation, these waves may occur at various wavelengths to produce a spectrum of light from radio waves to γ-rays. The equations are named after the physicist and mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, who between 1861 and 1862 published an early form of the equations that included the Lorentz force law. Maxwell first used the equations to propose that light is an electromagnetic phenomenon.

In general, only radiation acts over long distances, with the others acting over short distances. There are a few exceptions, such as a solar magnetic flare.

Frequency ranges

A pulse of electromagnetic energy typically comprises many frequencies from DC (zero Hz) to some upper limit depending on the source. The range defined as EMP, sometimes referred to as "DC to daylight", excludes the highest frequencies comprising the optical (infrared, visible, ultraviolet) and ionizing (X and gamma rays) ranges.

Some types of EMP events can leave an optical trail, such as lightning and sparks, but these are side effects of the current flow through the air and are not part of the EMP itself.

Pulse waveforms

The waveform of a pulse describes how its instantaneous amplitude (field strength or current) changes over time. Real pulses tend to be quite complicated, so simplified models are often used. Such a model is typically described either in a diagram or as a mathematical equation.

Rectangular pulse.svg
Rectangular pulse
Double exponential.svg
Double exponential pulse
Damped sinewave.svg
Damped sinewave pulse

Most electromagnetic pulses have a very sharp leading edge, building up quickly to their maximum level. The classic model is a double-exponential curve which climbs steeply, quickly reaches a peak and then decays more slowly. However, pulses from a controlled switching circuit often approximate the form of a rectangular or "square" pulse.

EMP events usually induce a corresponding signal in the surrounding environment or material. Coupling usually occurs most strongly over a relatively narrow frequency band, leading to a characteristic damped sine wave. Visually it is shown as a high frequency sine wave growing and decaying within the longer-lived envelope of the double-exponential curve. A damped sinewave typically has much lower energy and a narrower frequency spread than the original pulse, due to the transfer characteristic of the coupling mode. In practice, EMP test equipment often injects these damped sinewaves directly rather than attempting to recreate the high-energy threat pulses.

In a pulse train, such as from a digital clock circuit, the waveform is repeated at regular intervals. A single complete pulse cycle is sufficient to characterise such a regular, repetitive train.


An EMP arises where the source emits a short-duration pulse of energy. The energy is usually broadband by nature, although it often excites a relatively narrow-band damped sine wave response in the surrounding environment. Some types are generated as repetitive and regular pulse trains.

Different types of EMP arise from natural, man-made, and weapons effects.

Types of natural EMP event includes:

Types of (civil) man-made EMP event include:

Types of military EMP include:


Lightning is unusual in that it typically has a preliminary "leader" discharge of low energy building up to the main pulse, which in turn may be followed at intervals by several smaller bursts. [4] [5]

Electrostatic discharge (ESD)

ESD events are characterised by high voltages of many kV but small currents and sometimes cause visible sparks. ESD is treated as a small, localised phenomenon, although technically a lightning flash is a very large ESD event. ESD can also be man-made, as in the shock received from a Van de Graaff generator.

An ESD event can damage electronic circuitry by injecting a high-voltage pulse, besides giving people an unpleasant shock. Such an ESD event can also create sparks, which may in turn ignite fires or fuel-vapour explosions. For this reason, before refuelling an aircraft or exposing any fuel vapour to the air, the fuel nozzle is first connected to the aircraft to safely discharge any static.

Switching pulses

The switching action of an electrical circuit creates a sharp change in the flow of electricity. This sharp change is a form of EMP.

Simple electrical sources include inductive loads such as relays, solenoids, and the brush contacts in electric motors. Typically these send a pulse down any electrical connections present, as well as radiating a pulse of energy. The amplitude is usually small and the signal may be treated as "noise" or "interference". The switching off or "opening" of a circuit causes an abrupt change in the current flowing. This can in turn cause a large pulse in the electric field across the open contacts, causing arcing and damage. It is often necessary to incorporate design features to limit such effects.

Electronic devices such as vacuum tubes or valves, transistors and diodes can also switch on and off very quickly, causing similar issues. One-off pulses may be caused by solid-state switches and other devices used only occasionally. However, the many millions of transistors in a modern computer may switch repeatedly at frequencies above 1 GHz, causing interference which appears to be continuous.

Nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NEMP)

A nuclear electromagnetic pulse is the abrupt pulse of electromagnetic radiation resulting from a nuclear explosion. The resulting rapidly changing electric fields and magnetic fields may couple with electrical/electronic systems to produce damaging current and voltage surges. [6]

The intense gamma radiation emitted can also ionize the surrounding air, creating a secondary EMP as the atoms of air first lose their electrons and then regain them.

NEMP weapons are designed to maximize such EMP effects as the primary damage mechanism, and some are capable of destroying susceptible electronic equipment over a wide area.

A high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) weapon is a NEMP warhead designed to be detonated far above the Earth's surface. The explosion releases a blast of gamma rays into the mid-stratosphere, which ionizes as a secondary effect and the resultant energetic free electrons interact with the Earth's magnetic field to produce a much stronger EMP than is normally produced in the denser air at lower altitudes.

Non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NNEMP)

Non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NNEMP) is a weapon-generated electromagnetic pulse without use of nuclear technology. Devices that can achieve this objective include a large low-inductance capacitor bank discharged into a single-loop antenna, a microwave generator, and an explosively pumped flux compression generator. To achieve the frequency characteristics of the pulse needed for optimal coupling into the target, wave-shaping circuits or microwave generators are added between the pulse source and the antenna. Vircators are vacuum tubes that are particularly suitable for microwave conversion of high-energy pulses. [7]

NNEMP generators can be carried as a payload of bombs, cruise missiles (such as the CHAMP missile) and drones, with diminished mechanical, thermal and ionizing radiation effects, but without the consequences of deploying nuclear weapons.

The range of NNEMP weapons is much less than nuclear EMP. Nearly all NNEMP devices used as weapons require chemical explosives as their initial energy source, producing only 10−6 (one millionth) the energy of nuclear explosives of similar weight. [8] The electromagnetic pulse from NNEMP weapons must come from within the weapon, while nuclear weapons generate EMP as a secondary effect. [9] These facts limit the range of NNEMP weapons, but allow finer target discrimination. The effect of small e-bombs has proven to be sufficient for certain terrorist or military operations.[ citation needed ] Examples of such operations include the destruction of electronic control systems critical to the operation of many ground vehicles and aircraft. [10] [ additional citation(s) needed ]

The concept of the explosively pumped flux compression generator for generating a non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse was conceived as early as 1951 by Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, [11] but nations kept work on non-nuclear EMP classified until similar ideas emerged in other nations.

Electromagnetic forming

The large forces generated by electromagnetic pulses can be used to shape or form objects as part of their manufacturing process.


Minor EMP events, and especially pulse trains, cause low levels of electrical noise or interference which can affect the operation of susceptible devices. For example, a common problem in the mid-twentieth century was interference emitted by the ignition systems of gasoline engines, which caused radio sets to crackle and TV sets to show stripes on the screen. Laws were introduced to make vehicle manufacturers fit interference suppressors.

At a high voltage level an EMP can induce a spark, for example from an electrostatic discharge when fuelling a gasoline-engined vehicle. Such sparks have been known to cause fuel-air explosions and precautions must be taken to prevent them. [12]

A large and energetic EMP can induce high currents and voltages in the victim unit, temporarily disrupting its function or even permanently damaging it.

A powerful EMP can also directly affect magnetic materials and corrupt the data stored on media such as magnetic tape and computer hard drives. Hard drives are usually shielded by heavy metal casings. Some IT asset disposition service providers and computer recyclers use a controlled EMP to wipe such magnetic media. [13]

A very large EMP event such as a lightning strike is also capable of damaging objects such as trees, buildings and aircraft directly, either through heating effects or the disruptive effects of the very large magnetic field generated by the current. An indirect effect can be electrical fires caused by heating. Most engineered structures and systems require some form of protection against lightning to be designed in.

The damaging effects of high-energy EMP have led to the introduction of EMP weapons, from tactical missiles with a small radius of effect to nuclear bombs tailored for maximum EMP effect over a wide area.


EMP simulator HAGII-C testing a Boeing E-4 aircraft. E-4 advanced airborne command post EMP sim.jpg
EMP simulator HAGII-C testing a Boeing E-4 aircraft.
EMPRESS I (antennas along shoreline) with USS Estocin (FFG-15) moored in the foreground for testing. USS Estocin FFG-15 moored near EMPRESS I.jpg
EMPRESS I (antennas along shoreline) with USS Estocin (FFG-15) moored in the foreground for testing.

Like any electromagnetic interference, the threat from EMP is subject to control measures. This is true whether the threat is natural or man-made.

Therefore, most control measures focus on the susceptibility of equipment to EMP effects, and hardening or protecting it from harm. Man-made sources, other than weapons, are also subject to control measures in order to limit the amount of pulse energy emitted.

The discipline of ensuring correct equipment operation in the presence of EMP and other RF threats is known as electromagnetic compatibility (EMC).

Test simulation

To test the effects of EMP on engineered systems and equipment, an EMP simulator may be used.

Induced pulse simulation

Induced pulses are of much lower energy than threat pulses and so are more practicable to create, but they are less predictable. A common test technique is to use a current clamp in reverse, to inject a range of damped sine wave signals into a cable connected to the equipment under test. The damped sine wave generator is able to reproduce the range of induced signals likely to occur.

Threat pulse simulation

Sometimes the threat pulse itself is simulated in a repeatable way. The pulse may be reproduced at low energy in order to characterise the victim's response prior to damped sinewave injection, or at high energy to recreate the actual threat conditions.

A small-scale ESD simulator may be hand-held.

Bench- or room-sized simulators come in a range of designs, depending on the type and level of threat to be generated.

At the top end of the scale, large outdoor test facilities incorporating high-energy EMP simulators have been built by several countries. [14] [15] The largest facilities are able to test whole vehicles including ships and aircraft for their susceptibility to EMP. Nearly all of these large EMP simulators used a specialized version of a Marx generator. [14] [15]

Examples include the huge wooden-structured ATLAS-I simulator (also known as TRESTLE) at Sandia National Labs, New Mexico, which was at one time the world's largest EMP simulator. [16] Papers on this and other large EMP simulators used by the United States during the latter part of the Cold War, along with more general information about electromagnetic pulses, are now in the care of the SUMMA Foundation, which is hosted at the University of New Mexico. [17] [18] The US Navy also has a large facility called the Electro Magnetic Pulse Radiation Environmental Simulator for Ships I (EMPRESS I).


High-level EMP signals can pose a threat to human safety. In such circumstances, direct contact with a live electrical conductor should be avoided. Where this occurs, such as when touching a Van de Graaf generator or other highly-charged object, care must be taken to release the object and then discharge the body through a high resistance, in order to avoid the risk of a harmful shock pulse when stepping away.

Very high electric field strengths can cause breakdown of the air and a potentially lethal arc current similar to lightning to flow, however electric field strengths of up to 200 kV/m (Kilovolts per metre) are regarded as safe. [19]

The popular media often depict EMP effects incorrectly, causing misunderstandings among the public and even professionals. Official efforts have been made in the U.S. to disprove these misconceptions. [20] [21]

See also

Related Research Articles

Electromagnetic coil electrical component

An electromagnetic coil is an electrical conductor such as a wire in the shape of a coil, spiral or helix. Electromagnetic coils are used in electrical engineering, in applications where electric currents interact with magnetic fields, in devices such as electric motors, generators, inductors, electromagnets, transformers, and sensor coils. Either an electric current is passed through the wire of the coil to generate a magnetic field, or conversely an external time-varying magnetic field through the interior of the coil generates an EMF (voltage) in the conductor.

A nuclear electromagnetic pulse is a burst of electromagnetic radiation created by a nuclear explosion. The resulting rapidly varying electric and magnetic fields may couple with electrical and electronic systems to produce damaging current and voltage surges. The specific characteristics of a particular nuclear EMP event vary according to a number of factors, the most important of which is the altitude of the detonation.

Electrostatic discharge sudden flow of electricity between two electrically charged objects caused by contact, an electrical short, or dielectric breakdown

Electrostatic discharge (ESD) is the sudden flow of electricity between two electrically charged objects caused by contact, an electrical short, or dielectric breakdown. A buildup of static electricity can be caused by tribocharging or by electrostatic induction. The ESD occurs when differently-charged objects are brought close together or when the dielectric between them breaks down, often creating a visible spark.

Electric generator device that converts other energy to electrical energy

In electricity generation, a generator is a device that converts motive power into electrical power for use in an external circuit. Sources of mechanical energy include steam turbines, gas turbines, water turbines, internal combustion engines, wind turbines and even hand cranks. The first electromagnetic generator, the Faraday disk, was invented in 1831 by British scientist Michael Faraday. Generators provide nearly all of the power for electric power grids.

Faraday cage enclosure of conductive mesh used to block electric fields

A Faraday cage or Faraday shield is an enclosure used to block electromagnetic fields. A Faraday shield may be formed by a continuous covering of conductive material, or in the case of a Faraday cage, by a mesh of such materials. Faraday cages are named after the English scientist Michael Faraday, who invented them in 1836.

Effects of nuclear explosions Type and severity of damage caused by nuclear weapons

The effects of a nuclear explosion on its immediate vicinity are typically much more destructive and multifaceted than those caused by conventional explosives. In most cases, the energy released from a nuclear weapon detonated within the troposphere can be approximately divided into four basic categories:

Spark gap

A spark gap consists of an arrangement of two conducting electrodes separated by a gap usually filled with a gas such as air, designed to allow an electric spark to pass between the conductors. When the potential difference between the conductors exceeds the breakdown voltage of the gas within the gap, a spark forms, ionizing the gas and drastically reducing its electrical resistance. An electric current then flows until the path of ionized gas is broken or the current reduces below a minimum value called the "holding current". This usually happens when the voltage drops, but in some cases occurs when the heated gas rises, stretching out and then breaking the filament of ionized gas. Usually, the action of ionizing the gas is violent and disruptive, often leading to sound, light and heat.

Voltage spike fast, short duration electrical transient in voltage in an electrical circuit

In electrical engineering, spikes are fast, short duration electrical transients in voltage, current, or transferred energy in an electrical circuit.

In electrical engineering, partial discharge (PD) is a localized dielectric breakdown (DB) of a small portion of a solid or fluid electrical insulation (EI) system under high voltage (HV) stress. While a corona discharge (CD) is usually revealed by a relatively steady glow or brush discharge (BD) in air, partial discharges within solid insulation system are not visible.

High voltage electrical energy at voltages high enough to inflict harm on living organisms (numerical definition depends on context)

The term high voltage usually means electrical energy at voltages high enough to inflict harm on living organisms. Equipment and conductors that carry high voltage warrant particular safety requirements and procedures. In certain industries, high voltage means voltage above a particular threshold (see below). High voltage is used in electrical power distribution, in cathode ray tubes, to generate X-rays and particle beams, to demonstrate arcing, for ignition, in photomultiplier tubes, and in high power amplifier vacuum tubes and other industrial, military and scientific applications.

Overvoltage when the voltage in a circuit is raised above its upper design limit

When the voltage in a circuit or part of it is raised above its upper design limit, this is known as overvoltage. The conditions may be hazardous. Depending on its duration, the overvoltage event can be transient—a voltage spike—or permanent, leading to a power surge.

Operation Fishbowl

Operation Fishbowl was a series of high-altitude nuclear tests in 1962 that were carried out by the United States as a part of the larger Operation Dominic nuclear test program. Flight-test vehicles were designed and manufactured by Avco Corporation.

High-altitude nuclear explosions are the result of nuclear weapons testing. Several such tests were performed at high altitudes by the United States and the Soviet Union between 1958 and 1962.

Transient (oscillation) short burst of energy in a system caused by a sudden change of state

A transient event is a short-lived burst of energy in a system caused by a sudden change of state.

Radiofrequency MASINT is one of the six major disciplines generally accepted to make up the field of Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT), with due regard that the MASINT subdisciplines may overlap, and MASINT, in turn, is complementary to more traditional intelligence collection and analysis disciplines such as SIGINT and IMINT. MASINT encompasses intelligence gathering activities that bring together disparate elements that do not fit within the definitions of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), or Human Intelligence (HUMINT).

Surge arrester device to protect electrical equipment from over-voltage transients

A surge arrester is a device to protect electrical equipment from over-voltage transients caused by external (lightning) or internal (switching) events. Also called a surge protection device (SPD) or transient voltage surge suppressor (TVSS), this class of device is used to protect equipment in power transmission and distribution systems. The energy criterion for various insulation material can be compared by impulse ratio. A surge arrester should have a low impulse ratio, so that a surge incident on the surge arrester may be bypassed to the ground instead of passing through the apparatus.

Lightning has long been used as a dramatic device in popular fiction. A non-nuclear EMP (NNEMP) device appeared as early as 1965, in the Thunderbirds TV puppet show. By the early 1980s, a number of articles on nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NEMP) in the popular press spread knowledge of the EMP phenomenon into the popular culture. EMP has been subsequently used in a wide variety of fiction and other aspects of popular culture.


ATLAS-I, better known as Trestle, was the codename for a unique electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generation and testing apparatus built between 1972 and 1980 during the Cold War at Sandia National Laboratories near Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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