Electric Motor: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is an Electric Motor?
  • 0:25 How Do Electric Motors Work?
  • 1:53 Examples of Electric Motors
  • 2:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

In this lesson, you will learn what an electric motor is and how it works. Take the opportunity to look at some examples of the way in which electric motors are used in everyday life. A short quiz will follow.

What Is an Electric Motor?

Have you ever wondered how it is that we have devices that can turn electricity into motion? How does your ceiling fan turn or your food processor...process?

An Electric Motor

Anything that turns electricity into motion, meaning electrical energy into mechanical energy, is called an electric motor.

How Do Electric Motors Work?

Electric motors work on the principles of electromagnetism. When charges are still, they create electric fields. But when charges move, they instead produce magnetic fields. A current in a wire, for example, produces its own magnetic field. This is what we exploit in an electric motor to create movement.

An electric motor contains a coil of wire (sometimes called a solenoid) that creates a magnetic field when electricity flows through it. This is collectively known as an electromagnet.

An Electromagnet - How the Magnetic Field is Created

Then, a current is sent through a loop of wire positioned inside this electromagnet's magnetic field.

It turns out that when a current flows through a magnetic field, the charges feel a magnetic force on them at 90 degrees to the direction they're moving. Because of this, the wire as a whole feels a big force. And this force causes the loop of wire to move; electrical energy has been changed into movement.

If we look at a diagram of the loop of wire inside the magnetic field, we'll see that sides B and D have currents flowing in opposite directions. Because of this, the magnetic forces they feel also go in opposite directions. Side B feels a force into the page, and side D feels a force out of the page. These two forces together cause the loop of wire to rotate.

An electric motor turns because two sides of a loop feel opposite forces due to an external magnetic field.

This rotation is the basis for most electric motors that involve turning motions.

Examples of Electric Motors

An electric car has an electric motor. The energy stored in the car's batteries is converted into the rotation of the wheels.

Barack Obama in a Chevy Volt (Electric Car)

A food processor works on exactly the same principle. Electrical energy from the outlet is turned into rotation in the food processor, and if you attach blades to the part that turns, it can cut up your food.

A Food Processor

Even an elevator works on the same principles. In the case of an elevator, the final motion isn't rotation, but it's still based on electrical wires feeling forces inside magnetic fields.

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