Electromagnetic interference (or EMI, also called radio frequency interference or RFI) is a (usually unwanted input/output ripple) disturbance caused in a radio receiver or other electrical circuit by electromagnetic radiation emitted from an external source.  The disturbance may interrupt, obstruct, or otherwise degrade or limit the effective performance of the circuit. The source may be any object, artificial or natural, that carries rapidly changing electrical currents, such as an electrical circuit, the Sun or the Northern Lights.
EMI can be induced intentionally for radio jamming, as in some forms of electronic warfare, or unintentionally, as a result of spurious emissions and responses, intermodulation products, and the like. It frequently affects the reception of AM radio in urban areas. It can also affect cell phone, FM radio and television reception, although to a lesser extent.
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On integrated circuits, the most important means of reducing EMI are: the use of bypass or "decoupling" capacitors on each active device (connected across the power supply, as close to the device as possible), risetime control of high-speed signals using series resistors, and VCC filtering. Shielding is usually a last resort after other techniques have failed because of the added expense of RF gaskets and the like.
The efficiency of the radiation depends on the height above the ground or power plane (at RF one is as good as the other) and the length of the conductor in relation to the wavelength of the signal component (fundamental, harmonic or transient (overshoot, undershoot or ringing)). At lower frequencies, such as 133 MHz, radiation is almost exclusively via I/O cables; RF noise gets onto the power planes and is coupled to the line drivers via the VCC and ground pins. The RF is then coupled to the cable through the line driver as common-mode noise. Since the noise is common-mode, shielding has very little effect, even with differential pairs. The RF energy is capacitively coupled from the signal pair to the shield and the shield itself does the radiating. One cure for this is to use a braid-breaker or choke to reduce the common-mode signal.
At higher frequencies, usually above 500 MHz, traces get electrically longer and higher above the plane. Two techniques are used at these frequencies: wave shaping with series resistors and embedding the traces between the two planes. If all these measures still leave too much EMI, shielding such as RF gaskets and copper tape can be used. Most digital equipment is designed with metal, or conductive-coated plastic, cases.
Switching power supplies can be a source of EMI, but have become less of a problem as design techniques have improved.
Most countries have legal requirements that mandates electromagnetic compatibility: electronic and electrical hardware must still work correctly when subjected to certain amounts of EMI, and should not emit EMI which could interfere with other equipment (such as radios).
Susceptibilities of different radio technologies
Interference tends to be more troublesome with older radio technologies such as analogue amplitude modulation, which have no way of distinguishing unwanted in-band signals from the intended signal, and the omnidirectional dipole antennas used with broadcast systems. Newer radio systems incorporate several improvements that improve the selectivity. In digital radio systems, such as Wi-Fi, error-correction techniques can be used. Spread-spectrum and frequency-hopping techniques can be used with both analogue and digital signalling to improve resistance to interference. A highly directional receiver, such as a parabolic antenna or a diversity receiver, can be used to select one signal in space to the exclusion of others.
The most extreme example of digital spread-spectrum signalling to date is ultra-wideband (UWB), which proposes the use of large sections of the radio spectrum at low amplitudes to transmit high-bandwidth digital data. UWB, if used exclusively, would enable very efficient use of the spectrum, but users of non-UWB technology are not yet prepared to share the spectrum with the new system because of the interference it would cause to their receivers. The regulatory implications of UWB are discussed in the Ultra-wideband article.
The Special International Committee on Radio Interference (CISPR) sets standards for radiated and conducted electromagnetic interference.
- Based on the "interference" entry of The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th edition, online