Jan. 11 -- What does it take to rob a casino vault?
According to the movie Ocean's 11, it helps to have an electromagnetic device called a "pinch" to trigger a citywide black out and disable a casino vault's security systems.
Pinch machines do exist, but in real life, they can't exactly black out an entire city. In fact, Sandia National Laboratory physicist Jeff Quintenz says it's unusual if the lab's pinch machine — the largest in the world — manages to disrupt the computer sitting right next to it.
"To my knowledge, we've never disrupted any electronics outside the building," he said.
Making Energy, Not Destroying It
Instead of triggering an e-bomb (an electromagnetic pulse designed to wipe out the circuitry of all electrical devices in its range) the ultimate purpose of the so-called "Z pinch" machine is to achieve fusion: a possible endless source of energy.
The Z pinch hasn't managed to do that yet, and part of the problem has been in generating a strong enough current to trigger the needed reaction. Quintenz says Sandia's machine uses an electrical current of about 20 amps to produce an electromagnetic wave equaling 210 trillion watts — or about 60 times the world's usage of power at any moment.
That kind of wattage is likely what caught the interest of the Ocean's 11 production crew. A high-power electromagnetic wave is what's needed to provide the punch of an e-bomb, explains Daniel Fleisch, co-author of the book Electromagnetics With Applications.
"The Ocean's 11 producer probably realized that pinch machines use high-power electromagnetic waves to operate, so they thought they'd plug it into the plot," said Fleisch.
The fact that the machine features funky, brightly-lit wiring and is called a "pinch," which is slang for "steal," might have added to the electromagnetic machine's cachet.
But to generate its powerful pulse, Sandia's Z pinch machine hosts an enormous power capacitor that fills a huge room and makes up most of the machine's 100-foot-wide, 20-foot-tall bulk.