A Faraday cage or Faraday shield is an enclosure formed by conducting material, or by a mesh of such material. Such an enclosure blocks out external static electrical fields. Faraday cages are named after physicist Michael Faraday, who built one in 1836.
An external static electrical field will cause the electrical charges within the conducting material to redistribute themselves so as to cancel the field's effects in the cage's interior. This effect is used, for example, to protect electronic equipment from lightning strikes and other electrostatic discharges.
To a large degree, Faraday cages also shield the interior from external electromagnetic radiation if the conductor is thick enough and any holes are significantly smaller than the radiation's wavelength. For example, certain computer forensic test procedures of electronic components or systems that require an environment devoid of electromagnetic interference may be conducted within a so-called screen room. These screen rooms are essentially labs or work areas that are completely enclosed by one or more layers of fine metal mesh or perforated sheet metal. The metal layers are connected to earth ground to dissipate any electric currents generated from the external electromagnetic fields, and thus block a large amount of the electromagnetic interference. This application of Faraday cages is explained under electromagnetic shielding.
The same effect was predicted earlier by Francesco Beccaria (1716–1781) at the University of Turin, a student of Benjamin Franklin, who stated that "all electricity goes up to the free surface of the bodies without diffusing in their interior substance." Later, the Belgian physicist Louis Melsens (1814–1886) applied the principle to lightning conductors. Another researcher of this concept was Gauss (Gaussian surfaces).
A Faraday cage is best understood as an approximation to an ideal hollow conductor. Externally applied electric fields produce forces on the charge carriers (usually electrons) within the conductor, generating a current that rearranges the charges. Once the charges have rearranged so as to cancel the applied field inside, the current stops.
If a charge is placed inside an ungrounded Faraday cage the internal face of the cage will be charged (in the same manner described for an external charge) to prevent the existence of a field inside the body of the cage. However, this charging of the inner face would re-distribute the charges in the body of the cage. This charges the outer face of the cage with a charge equal in sign and magnitude to the one placed inside the cage. Since the internal charge and the inner face cancel each other out, the spread of charges on the outer face is not affected by the position of the internal charge inside the cage. So for all intents and purposes the cage will generate the same electric field it would generate if it was simply charged by the charge placed inside.
If the cage is grounded the excess charges will go to the ground instead of the outer face, so the inner face and the inner charge will cancel each other out and the rest of the cage would remain neutral. A Faraday cage is capable of completely stopping an attack using electromagnetism such as an EMP.
The cage will block external electrical fields even if the cage contains some charges and an electric field in its interior. This is a consequence of the superposition principle and the fact that the Maxwell equations are linear.
A Faraday cage will not shield its contents from static magnetic fields. However, rapidly-changing magnetic fields create electric fields in accordance with Maxwell's equations. The conductors cancel the electric fields and therefore the changing magnetic fields as well. The wall materials' thickness and skin depth set the frequency at which the cage suppresses electromagnetic fields. Static or slowly-changing magnetic fields penetrate the cage; rapidly-changing ones do not.
The effectiveness of a Faraday cage or shield is dependent upon the wavelength of the electric or electromagnetic fields it is intended to shield. This explains why a microwave oven, for example, can perform such shielding from the observer peering through the metal mesh screened "window" at the front of the oven to watch the cooking process take place. The holes are sized such that the waves within the oven cannot pass through even though visible light which has a much shorter wavelength easily passes through the holes. This also explains how cell phones have improved in building performance using the higher frequencies (shorter wavelengths) of EMFs than the earlier predecessors, notwithstanding improved digital modulation algorithms in so called 3G handsets today and later standards forthcoming. Quality levels of shielding also depend upon the types of metals used in the cages as well as the thicknesses.