Coming Solar Storms May Damage Electric Grids

August 8, 2011

Three large explosions from the Sun over the past few days have prompted U.S. government scientists to caution users of satellite, telecommunications and electric equipment to prepare for possible disruptions over the next few days.

“The magnetic storm that is soon to develop probably will be in the moderate to strong level,” said Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center, a division of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

He said solar storms this week could affect communications and global positioning system (GPS) satellites and might even produce an aurora visible as far south as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

An aurora, called aurora borealis or the northern lights in northern latitudes, is a natural light display in the sky in the Arctic and Antarctic regions caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere.

Major disruptions from solar activity are rare but have had serious impacts in the past.

In 1989, a solar storm took down the power grid in Quebec, Canada, leaving about six million people without power for several hours.

The largest solar storm ever recorded was in 1859 when communications infrastructure was limited to telegraphs.

The 1859 solar storm hit telegraph offices around the world and caused a giant aurora visible as far south as the Caribbean Islands.

Some telegraph operators reported electric shocks. Papers caught fire. And many telegraph systems continued to send and receive signals even after operators disconnected batteries, NOAA said on its website.

A storm of similar magnitude today could cause up to $2 trillion in damage globally, according to a 2008 report by the National Research Council.

“I don’t think this week’s solar storms will be anywhere near that. This will be a two or three out of five on the NOAA Space Weather Scale,” said Kunches.


The NOAA Space Weather Scale measures the intensity of a solar storm from one being the lowest intensity to five being the highest, similar to scales that measure the severity of hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.

The first of the three solar explosions from the sun this week already passed the Earth on Thursday with little impact, Kunches said, noting, the second was passing the Earth now and “seems to be stronger.”

And the third, he said, “We’ll have to see what happens over the next few days. It could exacerbate the disturbance in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the second (storm) or do nothing at all.”

Power grid managers receive alerts from the Space Weather Prediction Center to tell them to prepare for solar events, which peak about every 12 years, Tom Bogdan, director of the center said.

He said the next peak, called a solar maximum, was expected in 2013.

“We’re coming up to the next solar maximum, so we expect to see more of these storms coming from the sun over the next three to five years,” Bogdan said.


Electromagnetic Bomb: The Lethality

… A Weapon of Electronic Mass Destruction Part 3

by Carlo Kopp
Defense Analyst

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The Lethality of Electromagnetic Warheads

The issue of electromagnetic weapon lethality is complex. Unlike the technology base for weapon construction, which has been widely published in the open literature, lethality related issues have been published much less frequently.

While the calculation of electromagnetic field strengths achievable at a given radius for a given device design is a straightforward task, determining a kill probability for a given class of target under such conditions is not.

This is for good reasons. The first is that target types are very diverse in their electromagnetic hardness, or ability to resist damage. Equipment which has been intentionally shielded and hardened against electromagnetic attack will withstand orders of magnitude greater field strengths than standard commercially rated equipment. Moreover, various manufacturer’s implementations of like types of equipment may vary significantly in hardness due the idiosyncrasies of specific electrical designs, cabling schemes and chassis/shielding designs used.

The second major problem area in determining lethality is that of coupling efficiency, which is a measure of how much power is transferred from the field produced by the weapon into the target. Only power coupled into the target can cause useful damage.

Coupling Modes

In assessing how power is coupled into targets, two principal coupling modes are recognised in the literature:

  • Front Door Coupling occurs typically when power from a electromagnetic weapon is coupled into an antenna associated with radar or communications equipment. The antenna subsystem is designed to couple power in and out of the equipment, and thus provides an efficient path for the power flow from the electromagnetic weapon to enter the equipment and cause damage.
  • Back Door Coupling occurs when the electromagnetic field from a weapon produces large transient currents (termed spikes, when produced by a low frequency weapon ) or electrical standing waves (when produced by a HPM weapon) on fixed electrical wiring and cables interconnecting equipment, or providing connections to mains power or the telephone network. Equipment connected to exposed cables or wiring will experience either high voltage transient spikes or standing waves which can damage power supplies and communications interfaces if these are not hardened. Moreover, should the transient penetrate into the equipment, damage can be done to other devices inside.

A low frequency weapon will couple well into a typical wiring infrastructure, as most telephone lines, networking cables and power lines follow streets, building risers and corridors. In most instances any particular cable run will comprise multiple linear segments joined at approximately right angles. Whatever the relative orientation of the weapons field, more than one linear segment of the cable run is likely to be oriented such that a good coupling efficiency can be achieved.

It is worth noting at this point the safe operating envelopes of some typical types of semiconductor devices. Manufacturer’s guaranteed breakdown voltage ratings for Silicon high frequency bipolar transistors, widely used in communications equipment, typically vary between 15 V and 65 V. Gallium Arsenide Field Effect Transistors are usually rated at about 10V. High density Dynamic Random Access Memories (DRAM), an essential part of any computer, are usually rated to 7 V against earth. Generic CMOS logic is rated between 7 V and 15 V, and microprocessors running off 3.3 V or 5 V power supplies are usually rated very closely to that voltage. Whilst many modern devices are equipped with additional protection circuits at each pin, to sink electrostatic discharges, sustained or repeated application of a high voltage will often defeat these.

Communications interfaces and power supplies must typically meet electrical safety requirements imposed by regulators. Such interfaces are usually protected by isolation transformers with ratings from hundreds of Volts to about 2 to 3 kV.

It is clearly evident that once the defence provided by a transformer, cable pulse arrestor or shielding is breached, voltages even as low as 50 V can inflict substantial damage upon computer and communications equipment. The author has seen a number of equipment items (computers, consumer electronics) exposed to low frequency high voltage spikes (near lightning strikes, electrical power transients), and in every instance the damage was extensive, often requiring replacement of most semiconductors in the equipment.

HPM weapons operating in the centimetric and millimetric bands however offer an additional coupling mechanism to Back Door Coupling. This is the ability to directly couple into equipment through ventilation holes, gaps between panels and poorly shielded interfaces. Under these conditions, any aperture into the equipment behaves much like a slot in a microwave cavity, allowing microwave radiation to directly excite or enter the cavity. The microwave radiation will form a spatial standing wave pattern within the equipment. Components situated within the anti-nodes within the standing wave pattern will be exposed to potentially high electromagnetic fields.

Because microwave weapons can couple more readily than low frequency weapons, and can in many instances bypass protection devices designed to stop low frequency coupling, microwave weapons have the potential to be significantly more lethal than low frequency weapons.

What research has been done in this area illustrates the difficulty in producing workable models for predicting equipment vulnerability. It does however provide a solid basis for shielding strategies and hardening of equipment.

The diversity of likely target types and the unknown geometrical layout and electrical characteristics of the wiring and cabling infrastructure surrounding a target makes the exact prediction of lethality impossible.

A general approach for dealing with wiring and cabling related back door coupling is to determine a known lethal voltage level, and then use this to find the required field strength to generate this voltage. Once the field strength is known, the lethal radius for a given weapon configuration can be calculated.

A trivial example is that of a 10 GW 5 GHz HPM device illuminating a footprint of 400 to 500 metres diameter, from a distance of several hundred metres. This will result in field strengths of several kiloVolts per metre within the device footprint, in turn capable of producing voltages of hundreds of volts to kiloVolts on exposed wires or cables. This suggests lethal radii of the order of hundreds of metres, subject to weapon performance and target set electrical hardness.

Maximising Electromagnetic Bomb Lethality

To maximise the lethality of an electromagnetic bomb it is necessary to maximise the power coupled into the target set.

The first step in maximising bomb lethality is is to maximise the peak power and duration of the radiation of the weapon. For a given bomb size, this is accomplished by using the most powerful flux compression generator (and Vircator in a HPM bomb) which will fit the weapon size, and by maximising the efficiency of internal power transfers in the weapon. Energy which is not emitted is energy wasted at the expense of lethality.

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Electromagnetic Bomb: MHD Generators

… A Weapon of Electronic Mass Destruction Part 2

by Carlo Kopp
Defense Analyst

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A number of geometrical configurations for FCGs have been published. The most commonly used arrangement is that of the coaxial FCG. The coaxial arrangement is of particular interest in this context, as its essentially cylindrical form factor lends itself to packaging into munitions.

In a typical coaxial FCG , a cylindrical copper tube forms the armature. This tube is filled with a fast high energy explosive. A number of explosive types have been used, ranging from B and C-type compositions to machined blocks of PBX-9501. The armature is surrounded by a helical coil of heavy wire, typically copper, which forms the FCG stator. The stator winding is in some designs split into segments, with wires bifurcating at the boundaries of the segments, to optimise the electromagnetic inductance of the armature coil.

The intense magnetic forces produced during the operation of the FCG could potentially cause the device to disintegrate prematurely if not dealt with. This is typically accomplished by the addition of a structural jacket of a non-magnetic material. Materials such as concrete or Fibreglass in an Epoxy matrix have been used. In principle, any material with suitable electrical and mechanical properties could be used. In applications where weight is an issue, such as air delivered bombs or missile warheads, a glass or Kevlar Epoxy composite would be a viable candidate.

It is typical that the explosive is initiated when the start current peaks. This is usually accomplished with a explosive lense plane wave generator which produces a uniform plane wave burn (or detonation) front in the explosive. Once initiated, the front propagates through the explosive in the armature, distorting it into a conical shape (typically 12 to 14 degrees of arc). Where the armature has expanded to the full diameter of the stator, it forms a short circuit between the ends of the stator coil, shorting and thus isolating the start current source and trapping the current within the device. The propagating short has the effect of compressing the magnetic field, whilst reducing the inductance of the stator winding. The result is that such generators will producing a ramping current pulse, which peaks before the final disintegration of the device. Published results suggest ramp times of tens to hundreds of microseconds, specific to the characteristics of the device, for peak currents of tens of MegaAmperes and peak energies of tens of MegaJoules.

The current multiplication (ie. ratio of output current to start current) achieved varies with designs, but numbers as high as 60 have been demonstrated. In a munition application, where space and weight are at a premium, the smallest possible start current source is desirable. These applications can exploit cascading of FCGs, where a small FCG is used to prime a larger FCG with a start current. Experiments conducted by LANL and AFWL have demonstrated the viability of this technique.

The principal technical issues in adapting the FCG to weapons applications lie in packaging, the supply of start current, and matching the device to the intended load. Interfacing to a load is simplified by the coaxial geometry of coaxial and conical FCG designs. Significantly, this geometry is convenient for weapons applications, where FCGs may be stacked axially with devices such a microwave Vircators. The demands of a load such as a Vircator, in terms of waveform shape and timing, can be satisfied by inserting pulse shaping networks, transformers and explosive high current switches.

Explosive and Propellant Driven MHD Generators

The design of explosive and propellant driven Magneto-Hydrodynamic generators is a much less mature art that that of FCG design. Technical issues such as the size and weight of magnetic field generating devices required for the operation of MHD generators suggest that MHD devices will play a minor role in the near term. In the context of this paper, their potential lies in areas such as start current generation for FCG devices.

The fundamental principle behind the design of MHD devices is that a conductor moving through a magnetic field will produce an electrical current transverse to the direction of the field and the conductor motion. In an explosive or propellant driven MHD device, the conductor is a plasma of ionised explosive or propellant gas, which travels through the magnetic field. Current is collected by electrodes which are in contact with the plasma jet.

The electrical properties of the plasma are optimised by seeding the explosive or propellant with with suitable additives, which ionise during the burn. Published experiments suggest that a typical arrangement uses a solid propellant gas generator, often using conventional ammunition propellant as a base. Cartridges of such propellant can be loaded much like artillery rounds, for multiple shot operation.

High Power Microwave Sources – The Vircator

Whilst FCGs are potent technology base for the generation of large electrical power pulses, the output of the FCG is by its basic physics constrained to the frequency band below 1 MHz. Many target sets will be difficult to attack even with very high power levels at such frequencies, moreover focussing the energy output from such a device will be problematic. A HPM device overcomes both of the problems, as its output power may be tightly focussed and it has a much better ability to couple energy into many target types.

A wide range of HPM devices exist. Relativistic Klystrons, Magnetrons, Slow Wave Devices, Reflex triodes, Spark Gap Devices and Vircators are all examples of the available technology base [GRANATSTEIN87, HOEBERLING92]. From the perspective of a bomb or warhead designer, the device of choice will be at this time the Vircator, or in the nearer term a Spark Gap source. The Vircator is of interest because it is a one shot device capable of producing a very powerful single pulse of radiation, yet it is mechanically simple, small and robust, and can operate over a relatively broad band of microwave frequencies.

The physics of the Vircator tube are substantially more complex than those of the preceding devices. The fundamental idea behind the Vircator is that of accelerating a high current electron beam against a mesh (or foil) anode. Many electrons will pass through the anode, forming a bubble of space charge behind the anode. Under the proper conditions, this space charge region will oscillate at microwave frequencies. If the space charge region is placed into a resonant cavity which is appropriately tuned, very high peak powers may be achieved. Conventional microwave engineering techniques may then be used to extract microwave power from the resonant cavity. Because the frequency of oscillation is dependent upon the electron beam parameters, Vircators may be tuned or chirped in frequency, where the microwave cavity will support appropriate modes. Power levels achieved in Vircator experiments range from 170 kiloWatts to 40 GigaWatts over frequencies spanning the decimetric and centimetric bands.

The two most commonly described configurations for the Vircator are the Axial Vircator (AV) (Fig.3), and the Transverse Vircator (TV). The Axial Vircator is the simplest by design, and has generally produced the best power output in experiments. It is typically built into a cylindrical waveguide structure. Power is most often extracted by transitioning the waveguide into a conical horn structure, which functions as an antenna. AVs typically oscillate in Transverse Magnetic (TM) modes. The Transverse Vircator injects cathode current from the side of the cavity and will typically oscillate in a Transverse Electric (TE) mode.

Technical issues in Vircator design are output pulse duration, which is typically of the order of a microsecond and is limited by anode melting, stability of oscillation frequency, often compromised by cavity mode hopping, conversion efficiency and total power output. Coupling power efficiently from the Vircator cavity in modes suitable for a chosen antenna type may also be an issue, given the high power levels involved and thus the potential for electrical breakdown in insulators.

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Electromagnetic Bomb…

… A Weapon of Electronic Mass Destruction

by Carlo Kopp
Defense Analyst

High Power Electromagnetic Pulse generation techniques and High Power Microwave technology have matured to the point where practical E-bombs (Electromagnetic bombs) are becoming technically feasible, with new applications in both Strategic and Tactical Information Warfare. The development of conventional E-bomb devices allows their use in non-nuclear confrontations. This paper discusses aspects of the technology base, weapon delivery techniques and proposes a doctrinal foundation for the use of such devices in warhead and bomb applications.


The prosecution of a successful Information Warfare (IW) campaign against an industrialised or post industrial opponent will require a suitable set of tools. As demonstrated in the Desert Storm air campaign, air power has proven to be a most effective means of inhibiting the functions of an opponent’s vital information processing infrastructure. This is because air power allows concurrent or parallel engagement of a large number of targets over geographically significant areas.

While Desert Storm demonstrated that the application of air power was the most practical means of crushing an opponent’s information processing and transmission nodes, the need to physically destroy these with guided munitions absorbed a substantial proportion of available air assets in the early phase of the air campaign. Indeed, the aircraft capable of delivering laser guided bombs were largely occupied with this very target set during the first nights of the air battle.

The efficient execution of an IW campaign against a modern industrial or post-industrial opponent will require the use of specialised tools designed to destroy information systems. Electromagnetic bombs built for this purpose can provide, where delivered by suitable means, a very effective tool for this purpose.

The EMP Effect

The ElectroMagnetic Pulse (EMP) effect was first observed during the early testing of high altitude airburst nuclear weapons. The effect is characterised by the production of a very short (hundreds of nanoseconds) but intense electromagnetic pulse, which propagates away from its source with ever diminishing intensity, governed by the theory of electromagnetism. The ElectroMagnetic Pulse is in effect an electromagnetic shock wave.

This pulse of energy produces a powerful electromagnetic field, particularly within the vicinity of the weapon burst. The field can be sufficiently strong to produce short lived transient voltages of thousands of Volts (ie kiloVolts) on exposed electrical conductors, such as wires, or conductive tracks on printed circuit boards, where exposed.

It is this aspect of the EMP effect which is of military significance, as it can result in irreversible damage to a wide range of electrical and electronic equipment, particularly computers and radio or radar receivers. Subject to the electromagnetic hardness of the electronics, a measure of the equipment’s resilience to this effect, and the intensity of the field produced by the weapon, the equipment can be irreversibly damaged or in effect electrically destroyed. The damage inflicted is not unlike that experienced through exposure to close proximity lightning strikes, and may require complete replacement of the equipment, or at least substantial portions thereof.

Commercial computer equipment is particularly vulnerable to EMP effects, as it is largely built up of high density Metal Oxide Semiconductor (MOS) devices, which are very sensitive to exposure to high voltage transients. What is significant about MOS devices is that very little energy is required to permanently wound or destroy them, any voltage in typically in excess of tens of Volts can produce an effect termed gate breakdown which effectively destroys the device. Even if the pulse is not powerful enough to produce thermal damage, the power supply in the equipment will readily supply enough energy to complete the destructive process. Wounded devices may still function, but their reliability will be seriously impaired. Shielding electronics by equipment chassis provides only limited protection, as any cables running in and out of the equipment will behave very much like antennae, in effect guiding the high voltage transients into the equipment.

Computers used in data processing systems, communications systems, displays, industrial control applications, including road and rail signalling, and those embedded in military equipment, such as signal processors, electronic flight controls and digital engine control systems, are all potentially vulnerable to the EMP effect.

Other electronic devices and electrical equipment may also be destroyed by the EMP effect. Telecommunications equipment can be highly vulnerable, due to the presence of lengthy copper cables between devices. Receivers of all varieties are particularly sensitive to EMP, as the highly sensitive miniature high frequency transistors and diodes in such equipment are easily destroyed by exposure to high voltage electrical transients. Therefore radar and electronic warfare equipment, satellite, microwave, UHF, VHF, HF and low band communications equipment and television equipment are all potentially vulnerable to the EMP effect.

It is significant that modern military platforms are densely packed with electronic equipment, and unless these platforms are well hardened, an EMP device can substantially reduce their function or render them unusable.

The Technology Base for Conventional Electromagnetic Bombs

The technology base which may be applied to the design of electromagnetic bombs is both diverse, and in many areas quite mature. Key technologies which are extant in the area are explosively pumped Flux Compression Generators (FCG), explosive or propellant driven Magneto-Hydrodynamic (MHD) generators and a range of HPM devices, the foremost of which is the Virtual Cathode Oscillator or Vircator. A wide range of experimental designs have been tested in these technology areas, and a considerable volume of work has been published in unclassified literature.

This paper will review the basic principles and attributes of these technologies, in relation to bomb and warhead applications. It is stressed that this treatment is not exhaustive, and is only intended to illustrate how the technology base can be adapted to an operationally deployable capability.

Explosively Pumped Flux Compression Generators

The explosively pumped FCG is the most mature technology applicable to bomb designs. The FCG was first demonstrated by Clarence Fowler at Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) in the late fifties. Since that time a wide range of FCG configurations has been built and tested, both in the US and the USSR, and more recently CIS.

The FCG is a device capable of producing electrical energies of tens of MegaJoules in tens to hundreds of microseconds of time, in a relatively compact package. With peak power levels of the order of TeraWatts to tens of TeraWatts, FCGs may be used directly, or as one shot pulse power supplies for microwave tubes. To place this in perspective, the current produced by a large FCG is between ten to a thousand times greater than that produced by a typical lightning stroke.

The central idea behind the construction of FCGs is that of using a fast explosive to rapidly compress a magnetic field, transferring much energy from the explosive into the magnetic field.

The initial magnetic field in the FCG prior to explosive initiation is produced by a start current. The start current is supplied by an external source, such a a high voltage capacitor bank (Marx bank), a smaller FCG or an MHD device. In principle, any device capable of producing a pulse of electrical current of the order of tens of kiloAmperes to MegaAmperes will be suitable.

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