How Electromagnets Work

Electromagnets All Around Us

Engineers install a giant magnet inside the Large Hadron Collider, an enormous particle accelerator.
Engineers install a giant magnet inside the Large Hadron Collider, an enormous particle accelerator.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Many electromagnets have an advantage over permanent magnets because they can be easily turned on and off, and increasing or decreasing the amount of electricity flowing around the core can control their strength.

Modern technology relies heavily on electromagnets to store information using magnetic recording devices. When you save data to the hard drive in your computer, for example, tiny, magnetized pieces of metal are embedded onto a disk in a pattern specific to the saved information. This data started life as binary digital computer language (0s and 1s). When you retrieve this information, the pattern is converted into the original binary pattern and translated into a usable form. So what makes this an electromagnet? The current running through the computer’s circuitry magnetizes those tiny bits of metal. This is the same principal used in tape recorders, VCRs and other tape-based media (and yes, some of you still own tape decks and VCRs). This is why magnets can sometimes wreak havoc on the memories of these devices.

Electromagnets also paved the way for really harnessing the potential of electricity in the first place. In electrical appliances, the motor moves because the current flowing from your wall socket produces a magnetic field. It’s not the electricity itself powering the motor, but the charge created by the magnet. The force of the magnet creates rotational movement, which means they rotate around a fixed point, similar to the way a tire rotates around an axle.

So, why not skip this process and just use the outlet to power the motor in the first place? Because the current required to power an appliance is quite large. Have you ever noticed how turning on a large appliance such as a television or a washing machine can sometimes cause the lights in your home to flicker? This is because the appliance is drawing a lot of energy initially, but that large amount is only needed to get the motor started. Once that happens, this cycle of electromagnetic induction takes over.

From household appliances, we're moving up to some of the most complex machinery ever built to see how electromagnets are being used to unlock the origins of the universe. Particle accelerators are machines that propel charged particles toward one another at incredibly high speeds in order to observe what happens when they collide. These beams of subatomic particles are very precise and controlling their trajectory is critical so they don’t go off course and damage the machinery. This is where electromagnets come in. The magnets are positioned along the path of the colliding beams, and their magnetism is actually used to control their speed and trajectory [source: NOVA Teachers].

Not a bad resume for our friend the electromagnet, huh? From something you can create in your garage to operating the tools that scientists and engineers are using to decipher the origins of the universe, electromagnets have a pretty important role in the world around us.

Ready to try out some electromagnetic experiments of your own? Click over to the next page for some fun ideas.