What Makes a Magnet Work

Apr 15, 2014

Basics
A magnet is loosely defined as any object or material that produces a magnetic field. Although this definition encompasses electromagnets, which produce magnetic fields as a result of electrical current, in most cases the term "magnet" is used to describe permanent magnets, which are objects made from a material that can be permanently magnetized. These materials are also the ones that can be strongly attracted to other magnets, and are known as ferromagnetic materials. Some examples of ferromagnetic materials are cobalt, iron and nickel, as well as other natural minerals, including lodestone. Ferromagnetic materials can be divided into "hard" ferromagnetic materials, which are what permanent magnets are made out of, and "soft" materials, which are attracted to magnets but cannot be permanently magnetized.


General Principles Behind Magnetism
Magnetism, in general, arises from two sources. The first is the movement of electrical charges. The second is the intrinsic "magnetic moment" of some particles, by which the particle has its own miniature magnetic field. For magnetic materials, the moving electrical charges are electrons that are orbiting around the center of the atoms (known as the nucleus) and these electrons also have a magnetic moment. While there are other sources of magnetic fields in magnetic materials, they are often much smaller than the effects of the electrons and can be effectively discounted.


How Permanent Magnets Work?
In general, even with ferromagnetic materials, the magnetic fields generated by electron movement and the intrinsic magnetic fields from the electrons cancel out. Because these electrons move at random, basic probability dictates that their arrangements will even out. However, permanent magnets can be created when the electrons are lined up, which can happen when the material itself experiences a strong magnetic force. This arrangement of electrons may even be permanent, which as a result causes the material to have a net magnetic force. The electrons will stay lined up because, once they have been lined up to generate a net magnetic field, this field will work to keep them in the same orientation.

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