Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Getting killed by a solenoid

Solenoids are very common electrical devices, but they can be a hazard to someone who is working on them. Imagine a solenoid that initially has a DC current passing through it. The current creates a magnetic field inside and around it, which contains energy. Now suppose that we break the circuit. Since there is no longer a complete circuit, current will quickly stop flowing, and the magnetic field will collapse very quickly. The field had energy stored in it, and even a small amount of energy can create a dangerous power surge if released over a short enough time interval. It is prudent not to fiddle with a solenoid that has current flowing through it, since breaking the circuit could be hazardous to your health.

As a typical numerical estimate, let's assume a 40 cm x 40 cm x 40 cm solenoid with an interior magnetic field of 1.0 T (quite a strong field). For the sake of this rough estimate, we ignore the exterior field, which is weak, and assume that the solenoid is cubical in shape. The energy stored in the field is

That's a lot of energy!

Last Update: 2009-06-21