Modern life is becoming ever more dependent on technology. In the past, electronic products in the home were limited, consisting of only vacuum cleaners, clothes irons, and radios. Today, however, you cannot get away from electronic products. Even toasters and kettles are connected to the internet these days.
IoT appliances help to make life just that little bit easier, but technologies involving the internet are also critical for modern life. For example, the majority of credit and debit transactions rely on the use of electronic card readers that communicate with banks to shift money from one account to another. On top of that, the bank itself may not even have a vault that holds your money in any physical form (i.e., your funds are merely recorded on servers held by the bank).
Electronics are just about everywhere these days
While this dependence has enabled many advancements in technology, it also makes us vulnerable to attack. In the past, the backbone of a country could be said to be transportation infrastructure such as roads, railways, and even airports. This is why sabotage was popular during WW1 and WW2 involved destroying major railways as to prevent the transport of much needed supplies. However, while transportation systems are still vital for a country to function, there is now a new lifeline that may need more protection that people realize: our information infrastructure.
With so many services and transactions reliant on the internet and technology in general, a country could potentially be seriously harmed by a piece of technology no more complicated than a laptop or computer. While security for electronic devices is in a constant arms race constantly with information attacks, there is one attack that may make software protection useless. An EMP from a nuclear device has the ability to knock out electronics as far as 900 miles away. There is even research into developing non-nuclear EMP-generating devices which could silently knock out a country without causing physical destruction.
The Trinity Test (first nuclear bomb). Image courtesy of the Los Alamos National Laboratory
But it is not just malicious attacks that could cause the collapse of world-wide technological infrastructure. The sun has a nasty habit of creating large solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) which can destroy sensitive electronic equipment. Luckily for us, NASA track solar flares and give early warnings because solar flares do not travel as fast as radio waves.
But if everywhere on the planet is is going to be integrated with electronic devices then a defense against EMPs is needed. This is one application of technology that engineers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have developed.
Engineers Christopher Tuan and Lim Nguyen have created a conductive spray-on concrete that can stop an EMP from affecting electronic devices. Their invention was originally intended to melt snow and ice so as to provide safe surfaces for roads and bridges.
The pair started with ordinary concrete and then developed a special material that is mixed with the concrete to make it conductive. The material, called magnetite, is a material that has magnetic properties which can absorb microwave energy. But the magnetite on its own is not enough to stop an EMP blast, which is why carbon and metal components were added to the mixture. These additions allow the EMP-proof concrete to both absorb EMPs better and also reflect EM radiation too.
Engineers Christopher Tuan and Lim Nguyen. Image courtesy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
The mixture is not only great with EMPs but it is also more cost-effective than current methods for shielding. A common method for EMP protection is to place the sensitive device inside a Faraday cage (normally in the form of a metal enclosure or box).
This method, however, is not the most ideal solution as it is expensive and can be problematic in certain environments. Data centers, for example, can hold very important information such as transaction details and account information, which would be devastating if corrupted. For a data center to work efficiently, it needs to be kept cool. It also needs many network cables running to and from locations. Having the computer racks sit in metal enclosures would not only be expensive but also be problematic for heat management.
But that is not even half the problem. If any cable is left unprotected outside the server, the energy of an EMP can be transferred along that cable and into the internals of the server. The only real solution is to put the entire data center into a large metal box which is too expensive in most cases. The team's conductive concrete, however, merely needs to be sprayed on the outside of the building for it to protect all the sensitive devices inside without needing to interfere with anything inside.
The concrete may also find application in locations containing static-sensitive devices as it can be used to provide grounding and thus removal of static buildup. This would be beneficial to the entire electronics industry including semiconductor producers, research laboratories, R&D departments, factories, and even hobby workshop flooring.
It's Already Sold
Many inventions and developments that warrant a press release are early in their development: proof-of-concept or announcements with no current real-world application. But this conductive concrete already has a patent and is currently being produced.
ABC Group, a shielding specialist company has exclusive rights to produce the concrete and has combined the conductive ability with their shotcrete product which allows them to coat buildings without needing to replace the existing structure that is to be protected. The company has created a test structure at its disaster recovery complex to see how well the concrete mitigates against EMPs and explosions. Their tests showed that the mixture can indeed protect against explosions and EMP attacks, even exceeding military shielding requirements.
An EMP simulator device mounted on an E-4 aircraft. EMP devices may soon become a military weapon
EMP-proof concrete may sound like a niche product, but it is something that will be an absolute necessary in the near future. With weapons technology becoming ever more advanced and the sun spitting out electronics-killing CMEs), protection for sensitive electronic devices has never been more important. This is especially true in a world where you cannot go down the road without being in range of ten different Wi-Fi networks, having a smartphone tell you about your daily plans, a satellite that constantly awaits your communication, and a debit card that buys you everything you need. We may find that, in short order, EMP shielding becomes as necessary to our everyday life as the electronics they protect.