Jan. 11, 2002 -- 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.
The idea of launching a pinch machine from a van, as a character does in the film, amuses Quintenz. "There's no way there could ever be enough energy stored in that van," he said.
Weapon of the Future
So are there any machines that could black out a city and foil the high-tech security of a casino?
Scientists are researching a device called a flux compression generator that could possibly do the trick. And Fleisch says the U.S. military is exploring the idea of an e-bomb for other uses, including neutralizing anti-ship missiles. Testing for early versions of small e-bombs are reportedly lined up in the coming year.
Some fear the e-bomb could emerge as the next weapon of terrorists and rogue states. By blacking out a large region with a powerful electromagnetic pulse, an enemy could effectively cripple all technology in a modern city.
But the development is not there yet and until an effective e-bomb is created, the only other device that could trigger such a widespread blackout is a nuclear bomb. A nuclear bomb, obviously, would cause other, much more profound damage.
Alan Feldman, a spokesman for the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas (the casino featured in the film) says that the casino's security team considered ways of protecting their vault from a possible e-bomb following the Sept. 11 attacks. But, he said, they decided that since such a weapon would threaten much more than casino security it was an issue better left to federal agents.
"You'd be lucky if power failure at a casino were your only problem," he said.
The Weakest Links
Rather than worrying about elaborate technical gadgets, Feldman says Casino managers worry most about corrupt employees. In fact, a recent casino robbery in Reno, Nev., occurred when a bored security guard decided to walk off with $148,500.
Even if employees pull off an inside job, casinos have technology to ensure the criminal is identified and captured. Paul Bodell of Phillips Communication, Security and Imaging in Lancaster, Pa., (the same company that supplied security equipment for the Ocean's 11 set) explains there are always back-up recording tapes that most security personnel don't know about.
"If a guard steals a tape out of one recorder to cover his traces, there's usually another tape of the same recording in another hidden unit," he said.
Then if someone manages to get away with the money, Feldman says most casino money is traced by the bills' serial numbers and is bundled in bands that spill distinctive ink on the bills if opened by unauthorized hands.
Still, Bodell adds, "If, say, the person in charge of security at the casino wants to rob it, they're going to do it. Nothing is ever 100 percent foolproof but that's still pretty improbable."
Then again, improbability is a Hollywood specialty.