Paramagnetic: Definition & Materials

Instructor: Chris Malec

Chris has a PhD in Physics

In this lesson, we will discuss what it means for a material to be paramagnetic. We will discuss the basic atomic properties that lead to paramagnetism and list common paramagnetic materials.

Magnetic Properties and Paramagnets

When someone says the word magnetic, you probably think of a typical magnet, maybe a refrigerator magnet. Magnets display one type of magnetic property, called ferromagnetism. Ferromagnetic materials usually contain nickel, iron, or cobalt. Two other magnetic properties a material can display are called paramagnetism and diamagnetism.

Basically, paramagnetic materials go with the flow: when a magnetic field is turned on, their magnetization points in the same direction. On the contrary, when diamagnetic materials are exposed to a magnetic field, their magnetization points in the opposite direction. Neither paramagnetic materials nor diamagnetic materials remain magnetized when they are no longer in a magnetic field. In this lesson, we are going to focus on paramagnets, or materials that display paramagnetism.

The Origins of Paramagnetism

To understand any magnetic property, you have to understand that all atoms have spin. Spin is basically the intrinsic magnetism of particles like protons, neutrons, and electrons. All these particles act like tiny magnets with their own north and south poles.

In most materials, magnetism comes from adding up all the magnetism of the electrons, since an electron is perfectly paramagnetic (meaning its magnetic pole will point in whatever direction a magnetic field is applied).

To find out whether or not a material is paramagnetic, we have to look at how the electrons are arranged in the energy levels of an atom. If an atom has any unpaired electrons, then the material is paramagnetic. On the other hand, if there are only paired electrons, the material is diamagnetic.

To quantify 'how' paramagnetic a material is, there's just one more parameter that we'll introduce, chi. Chi is the susceptibility of a material, or how susceptible it is to the influence of a magnetic field. The larger chi is, the more paramagnetic a material is. An equation that describes this is: M (magnetization) = chi*H (applied magnetic field). Paramagnets have a positive susceptibility, which means their susceptibility is higher than 0.

It is important to note that sometimes materials do not follow our rule of unpaired electrons, so it's important to be able to measure chi for various materials.

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