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In electrical engineering, electromagnetic shielding is the practice of reducing the electromagnetic field in a space by blocking the field with barriers made of conductive or magnetic materials. Shielding is typically applied to enclosures to isolate electrical devices from their surroundings and to cables to isolate wires from the environment through which the cable runs. Electromagnetic shielding that blocks radio frequency (RF) electromagnetic radiation is also known as RF shielding.
The shielding can reduce the coupling of radio waves, electromagnetic fields, and electrostatic fields. A conductive enclosure used to block electrostatic fields is also known as a Faraday cage. The amount of reduction depends very much upon the material used, its thickness, the size of the shielded volume and the frequency of the fields of interest, and the size, shape, and orientation of holes in a shield to an incident electromagnetic field.
Typical materials used for electromagnetic shielding include sheet metal, metal screen, and metal foam. Common sheet metals for shielding include Silver, Copper, Nickel, steel, and tin. Shielding effectiveness, that is how well a shield reflects or absorbs/suppresses electromagnetic radiation, is affected by the metal's physical properties. These may include conductivity, solderability, permeability, thickness, and weight. A metal's properties are an essential consideration in material selection. For example, electrically dominant waves are reflected by highly conductive metals like copper, silver, and brass. In contrast, magnetically dominant waves are absorbed/suppressed by a less conductive metal such as steel or stainless steel. Further, any holes in the shield or mesh must be significantly smaller than the wavelength of the radiation that is being kept out, or the enclosure will not effectively approximate an unbroken conducting surface.
Another commonly used shielding method, especially with electronic goods housed in plastic enclosures, is to coat the enclosure's inside with metallic ink or similar material. The ink consists of a carrier material loaded with a suitable metal, typically copper or nickel, in the form of microscopic particulates. It is sprayed on to the enclosure and, once dry, produces a continuous conductive layer of metal, which can be electrically connected to the chassis ground of the equipment, thus providing effective shielding.
Electromagnetic shielding is the process of lowering the electromagnetic field in an area by barricading it with conductive or magnetic material. Copper is used for radio frequency (RF) shielding because it absorbs radio and other electromagnetic waves. Properly designed and constructed RF shielding enclosures satisfy most RF shielding needs, from a computer and electrical switching rooms to hospital CAT-scan and MRI facilities.
Cross-section through a coaxial cable showing shielding and other layers
One example is a shielded cable, which has electromagnetic shielding in the form of a wire mesh surrounding an inner core conductor. The shielding impedes the escape of any signal from the core conductor and prevents signals from being added to the core conductor. Some cables have two separate coaxial screens, one connected at both ends, the other at one end only, to maximize shielding of both electromagnetic and electrostatic fields.
The door of a microwave oven has a screen built into the window. From the microwaves' perspective (with wavelengths of 12 cm), this screen finishes a Faraday cage formed by the oven's metal housing. With wavelengths ranging between 400 nm and 700 nm, visible light passes quickly through the screen holes.
RF shielding is also used to prevent access to data stored on RFID chips embedded in various devices, such as biometric passports.
NATO specifies electromagnetic shielding for computers and keyboards to prevent passive monitoring of keyboard emissions that would allow passwords to be captured; consumer keyboards do not offer this protection primarily because of the prohibitive cost.
RF shielding is also used to protect medical and laboratory equipment to provide protection against interfering signals, including AM, FM, TV, emergency services, dispatch, pagers, ESMR, cellular, and PCS. It can also be used to protect the equipment at the AM, FM, or TV broadcast facilities.
Another example of the practical use of electromagnetic shielding would be defence applications. As technology improves, so does the susceptibility to various types of nefarious electromagnetic interference. The idea of encasing a cable inside a grounded conductive barrier can provide mitigation to these risks. See Shielded Cables and Electromagnetic interference.
How it works
Electromagnetic radiation consists of coupled electric and magnetic fields. The electric field produces forces on the charge carriers (i.e., electrons) within the conductor. As soon as an electric field is applied to the surface of an ideal conductor, it induces a current that causes displacement of charge inside the conductor that cancels the applied field inside, at which point the current stops. See Faraday cage for more explanation.
Similarly, varying magnetic fields generate eddy currents that act to cancel the applied magnetic field. (The conductor does not respond to static magnetic fields unless the conductor is moving relative to the magnetic field.) The result is that electromagnetic radiation is reflected from the surface of the conductor: internal fields stay inside, and external fields stay outside.
Several factors serve to limit the shielding capability of real RF shields. Due to the electrical resistance of the conductor, the excited field does not entirely cancel the incident field. Also, most conductors exhibit a ferromagnetic response to low-frequency magnetic fields so that the conductor does not fully attenuate such fields. Any holes in the shield force current to flow around them so that fields passing through the holes do not excite opposing electromagnetic fields. These effects reduce the field-reflecting capability of the shield.
In the case of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation, the above-mentioned adjustments take a non-negligible amount of time, yet any such radiation energy, as far as it is not reflected, is absorbed by the skin (unless it is extremely thin), so in this case, there is no electromagnetic field inside either. This is one aspect of a greater phenomenon called the skin effect. A measure of the depth to which radiation can penetrate the shield is the so-called skin depth.
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