What is a magnet?

We are all aware that magnets are handy for tasks that range from simple to complex. They can be used to hold things on the refrigerator, to decipher direction, and even to propel things, like China’s high-speed Maglev trains. They serve many purposes, but do you really know what they are and how they work? If you’ve ever found yourself asking “What is a magnet?” — you’re not alone.

what is a magnet
Horseshoe magnet attracting steel nails.

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 current. Magnetic fields are created naturally in materials like iron, nickel, and cobalt. In addition to natural magnets, there are also temporary magnets that can be created by applying electrical current to an object.

In materials like iron, nickel, and cobalt, magnetic fields are a result of the movement of these materials’ electrons. These specific materials have electrons that orbit outside of the material itself. The orbiting electrons create a magnetic field which pulls material in or pushes it away.

what is a magnet
Two bar magnets with lines showcasing their magnet fields and the patterns they make.

If you’ve every 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.

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.

what is a magnet
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.

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.

Now that you know more or less what a magnet is and how it works, let’s talk about the different types of magnets.

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.

what is a magnet
Magnets on a fridge.

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.

Material that can be magnetized and exhibits strong magnetic properties are known as ferromagnetic materials. Ferromagnetic materials include iron, nickel, cobalt, steel, and some rare earth metals and naturally occurring materials like lodestone.

what is a magnet
Large electromagnet picking up material in a junkyard.

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.

What is a magnet?

Hopefully this information helped you to better understand what magnets are and how they work! Please share any questions or comments you with us via the comment section below.

(Visited 638 times, 1 visits today)