How Do Magnets Work?

If you’ve ever found yourself asking: “How do Magnets Work?” — you’re not alone.

Below we’ve addressed this question along with other frequently asked questions regarding magnets.

How Do Magnets Work
Magnet attracting a group of paperclips through magnifying glass.

How do magnets work?

Magnets exhibit a variety of unique qualities, which at first glance may appear magical but when examined more closely, are really just a result of magnetic fields interacting with each other.

What is a magnetic field?

A magnetic field is created by electric currents. In magnets, magnetic fields are either created by applying electricity to an object (which will result in a temporary electromagnet) or the magnetic field is a result of the alignment and movement of a material’s electrons.

What are ferromagnetic metals?

Ferromagnetic metals  are a group of metals that include iron, nickel, and cobalt. These metals have electrons that line up in a unique way. Most materials have electrons that line up in pairs. These pairs cancel out the material’s magnetic field.

how do magnets work
Basic arrangement of electrons in Iron (a ferromagnetic metal). Notice the unpaired electrons.

Ferromagnetic metals  on the other hand have electrons without pairs within their makeup. The unpaired electrons give ferromagnetic metals their magnetic fields.

What are magnets made out of?

Most magnets are made out of a group of metals called ferromagnetic metals which include iron, nickel, cobalt, and other rare earth metals.

These metals are magnetic, but they are not naturally magnetized. Hence, a ferromagnetic metal will be attracted to material that is already magnetized, but will be unable to attract magnets to it until it is magnetized.

how do magnets work
Iron ore – Magnetite and Hematite from Island of Elba, Italy.

Ferromagnetic metals are typically what magnets are made out of because they are naturally magnetic, can easily be magnetized, and once magnetized they can hold their magnetism for a long period of time.

Electromagnets on the other hand can be made out of material that is not magnetic at all, like copper, because their magnetic field is generated via electrical current rather than electric current from the material’s electrons.

Why do magnets push and pull?

If you ever played with magnets, you probably know that magnets have a side that attracts (or pulls) and a side that detracts (or pushes). All magnets have two sides, and they are known as the magnet’s north pole and south pole — named after Earth’s magnetic  north and south poles.

The north end of a magnet will stick to another magnet’s south end. A magnet’s south end will stick to another magnet’s north end. But if a magnet’s north end is placed near another magnet’s north end, the magnets will push each other away.

How Do Magnets Work
Two bar magnets with lines showcasing their magnet fields and the patterns they make.
How Do Magnets Work
Photo on the left: a graphic showcasing how magnets’ north and south poles interact with each other. Photo on the right: showcases how electrons flow throughout the magnet to create a magnetic field.

Magnets push and pull because electrons exit through the magnet’s north pole and reenter through its south pole – as shown in the images above and below. This pattern creates an energy field or magnetic field.

When the magnet’s north end is placed next to another magnet’s north end, the energy fields clash and work against each other because the electrons are flowing in different directions. This is why the two north ends repel each other. When a north and south end are placed next to each other, their energy is flowing in the same directing, so they join together as one.

What types of magnets are there?

There are a lot of different types of magnets. They vary is size, strength, and how they are made. Below we’ve listed the most common types of magnets and give a brief explanation of what they are and how they work.

Permanent magnets are objects made from material that is magnetized. These are the magnets that many of us are most familiar with. Examples of permanent magnets include refrigerator magnets, magnets found in compasses, and so on. They are permanent in the sense that once they are magnetized, they hold that level of magnetism.

how do magnets work
A compass.

Temporary magnets are easy to make and unmake. They act like a permanent magnet when they are within a strong magnetic field — created by either electrical current or a permanent magnet. Temporary magnets lose their magnetism when the magnetic field disappears. A few examples of temporary magnets are paperclips and nails and other soft iron items.

Electromagnets can be made out of a material that is not magnetic at all. They can be made of copper for example, a nonmagnetic material. As long as there is electricity flowing through the object, the object becomes an electromagnet because the electricity creates a magnetic field.

Hopefully this information has given you a better understanding of what magnets are and how they work. Do you have questions regarding magnets that we didn’t cover here? Please share them with us via the comment section below!

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