The next ‘big’ solar storm could destroy our electrical infrastructure
But how exactly?
An electromagnetic pulse is an intense burst of electromagnetic energy that can travel at the speed of light, which means that it can simultaneously damage all sensitive electronic devices in its path. This is inconvenient for anyone affected and can have disastrous effects if a large number of electronic devices are quickly damaged.
Electrical insulators (such as MOSFETs – metal-oxide and semiconductor field-effect transistors) can crack or leak when exposed to intense bursts of electromagnetic energy, and biased junctions can experience avalanches.
Electrons can move freely between the source (energy source) and the drain once devices such as MOSFETs are penetrated because they are no longer able to switch or control the current flow. This process can also lead to a significant buildup of heat in the circuits.
Ohm’s rule states that because semiconductors have a negative temperature coefficient, larger voltages tend to increase the amount of current in electrical circuits, which in turn leads to a chain reaction in heat generation.
Combustion will almost certainly result from this heat, which, although it may not be high enough to melt the semiconductor, is usually enough to melt thin metal wires, solder, and epoxy. It can also melt plastic components, possibly igniting them.
In many cases, relatively little power is needed to initiate this catastrophic failure of the network or battery powered devices.
The power supply (whether it comes from a battery or mains) can flow unimpeded after the initial electromagnetic pulse and with broken insulators, causing chaos in electrical circuits.
For this reason, cascading damage to digital infrastructure could be one of the most important potential effects of a sufficiently strong solar storm. A failure of one component in the system is likely to overload another component, which then causes another to occur, and so on throughout the network.
SMPS explosions caused by this cascade effect may cause electrical surges in the power grid. This could theoretically result in hundreds of thousands of these failing simultaneously in areas “hit” by a solar storm.
What is the impact of a severe solar storm on modern society?
Our modern societies are often referred to as the Information Age, which is increasingly dependent on electronic systems that use parts that are highly susceptible to high electrical currents and voltages.
Semiconductors play an important role in controlling many of these electronic systems. Local heating during electromagnetism can cause malfunctions of semiconductor devices. A failure of a semiconductor chip could destroy business operations, rail networks, telephone and power infrastructure, and access to water supplies.
Equipment used in business is particularly vulnerable to the effects of electromagnetic pulses. All computers embedded in military equipment, such as signal processors, flight electronic controls, digital engine control systems, as well as those used in data processing systems, communications systems, displays, and industrial control applications, including road and rail signals, are potentially subject to the influence of Electromagnetic pulse.
Receivers of all types are susceptible to electromagnetic influences, which makes telecommunications equipment vulnerable to such events. As a result, all electronic equipment used in radar and electronic warfare, satellite, microwave, UHF, VHF, HF, low-band communications, as well as television technology may be affected.
In addition, vehicles with electronic ignition systems and ignition chips are at risk.
Railroad tracks, large antennas, pipelines, cables, wire in structures, and metal fencing are a few of the additional important EMP complexes. Even when the objects below them are partially electromagnetic shielded on Earth, they may still function as collectors, and these collectors can transmit electromagnetic energy to a larger facility.
So, can anything be done to help prevent this?
The two main ways to defend against the effects of an electromagnetic pulse are shielding and hardening.
Metal shielding is the first technique. This consists of a continuous piece of metal, such as steel or copper, that is used to effectively encapsulate sensitive electronics and protect them from the worst effects of electromagnetic pulses. However, any holes in the shield must be smaller than the wavelength of the radiation being deflected, or else the shield will not create an unbroken conductive surface.
Due to the possibility of small holes, the metal cage does not completely protect anything inside. As a result, this type of shielding frequently includes additional barrier building components.
Most of the time, it only takes a tiny fraction of a millimeter thick of the metal to provide adequate protection. This barrier should surround the entire body being strengthened. For example, electronic goods contained in a plastic casing can be protected by coating the inside of the casing with metallic ink.
The second method, custom hardening, is an economical method of hardening. In this approach, only the most sensitive components and circuits undergo a more rigorous redesign process.
More difficult items can handle much higher currents. Although testing this technology revealed unexpected failures, it is believed that it could help make existing systems less vulnerable.
One example is replacing all metal cables in networks with fiber-optic alternatives, especially for old copper wires. Others include adding security features to network power interfaces and antenna feeds.
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