Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What I learned at the 2015 IEEE EMC Symposium - How High Power Electromagnetic Effects Can Change Our Lives! 

I had the pleasure of attending the 2015 IEEE EMC Symposium in Santa Clara last week.  I have to say that it was one of the better symposia I have been to – loaded with thought-provoking and informative speakers.  But the keynote speech was especially interesting.

It was so interesting, that I thought I would blog about it!

The keynote speech was delivered by Dr. Thomas H. Lee of Stanford University.   Dr. Lee’s style is very down to earth, with amusing engineering ‘sayings’ and remarks.   Even so, he chose a very serious subject to speak about – the vulnerability of our digital world to high power electromagnetic effects. .

Dr. Lee explained that our planet now contains as many cell phones as humans.   Amusingly, he also mentioned that there are 10 times the number of transistors made each year than ants on Earth! (yes, ants. - others have estimated even higher).  We all know that our economy and in many ways our lives are dependent on the internet, and we are becoming more and more connected every year.

But history has shown that we may be vulnerable!

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs), or massive bursts of gas and magnetic fields from our Sun, have been observed as far back as 1859. That CME – also known as the Carrington event – induced one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record.  Aurora could be seen as far south as Hawaii!  Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, and even gave telegraph operators electric shocks. (Ouch!)  Telegraphs operators could continue to receive and send messages despite having disconnected their power supplies.

Another strong CME was detected in 1989. It caused a transformer failure on one of the main power transmission lines in Quebec.   Six million people lost power for nine hours or more. It cost Quebec $2 billion to repair and upgrade their system! 

In 2012, a Carrington-Level Event barely missed Earth.


Dr. Lee also spoke about the July 9, 1962 “Starfish Prime” high altitude nuclear test near Johnson island in the Pacific. It was a ~1.5MT detonation at an altitude of about 250 miles.   This test caused an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) that was far larger than expected, and drove monitoring instrumentation off the scale. The EMP knocked out about 300 streetlights, set off numerous burglar alarms, and damaged a microwave link 900 miles away in Hawaii!  Many folks in Hawaii were able to see the blast, possibly because the event was advertised in the newspaper!  Since it was high-altitude, the blast also formed radiation belts around the earth.  These man-made radiation belts eventually crippled 1/3 of all low earth orbit (LEO) satellites that were in orbit at the time.

Needless to say, CME and EMP events could have a devastating effect on our connected society. In addition to the internet and cellular infrastructure, the ever expanding Smart Grid and the machine to machine connectivity of the Internet of Things are all potentially vulnerable.

As EMI engineers we are on the front line.

Many of us EMI engineers have designed circuits to be lightning or EMP resistant.  Fortunately, there’s a technical committee (TC) within the IEEE EMC Society that specializes in High Power Electromagnetics. (TC5 – Chaired by Dr. William Radasky).   Because of Dr. Lee’s interesting speech, I made time to sit in on the TC5 meeting. 

TC5 is not only concerned with CME’s and EMP but is also the IEEE’s technical committee concerned with other high power phenomena, such as Lightning, Intentional EMI (IEMI) and Electrostatic Discharge.

I learned that there are six working groups presently in process of looking into existing lightning standards.   There has been work by the power systems council Cigre stating that levels in present lightning standards may be as much as 10x too low!   That includes our technical standards for commercial aircraft!!

I also learned that Intentional EMI (IEMI) is a ‘hot topic’. For those of you not familiar with it, it’s defined as “Intentional malicious generation of electromagnetic energy introducing noise or signals into electric and electronic systems, thus disrupting, confusing or damaging these systems for terrorist or criminal purposes”.  That’s right, the bad guys are using EMI against us! 

There were 6 presentations about IEMI at this 2015 symposium, all of which were well attended by more than 40 people.  Dr. Radasky spoke of one case where a security video camera was intentionally interfered with by criminals.  When radiated, the image froze – which if you think about it, that’s the worst thing that could happen.   One of the outcomes of TC5 was the publication of IEEE 1642, the “Recommended Practice for Protecting Publicly Accessible Computer Systems from Intentional Electromagnetic Interference (IEMI).

My impression is that’s it’s a good thing we have such a great deal of interest and activity on issues that could affect our very lives!   It’s a great time to be an EMI engineer!