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What is an Electromagnet? - Definition, Uses & Parts

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  • 0:03 What Is an Electromagnet?
  • 0:44 Why Do they Work? How…
  • 2:12 Use of Electromagnets
  • 3:10 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'll learn what an electromagnet is, how it is used in a few real-life situations, and the parts that make it up. A short quiz will follow.

What Is an Electromagnet?

Magnets are cool. There are all kinds of fun experiments you can do with them, but their usefulness can be rather...limited. A magnet is always a magnet. It always attracts. Sometimes you want that, such as with a fridge magnet, but not always. By using electromagnets, that all changes, and the applications become endless.

An electromagnet is a magnet that is created using an electric current, created by electricity. Since electricity can be turned on and off, so can an electromagnet. It can even be weakened or strengthened by decreasing or increasing the current.

Why Do They Work? How Are They Made?

There are four fundamental forces in physics, and one of them is called electromagnetism. But when we study physics, we usually learn about electric forces and magnetic forces separately. Why is that?

Well, the two forces seem very different from each other. The equations that represent them are totally different. But it turns out that they're part of the same electromagnetic force.

When charges, like electrons or protons, are stationary, they produce electric forces, or an attractive or repulsive force between charged particles. But when electrons or protons are moving, they produce magnetic forces, or an attractive or repulsive force between charged particles due to their motion. Inside a magnet are lots of tiny moving charges, which gives the magnet its magnetic field.

This knowledge of how magnetism works is important because it gives us the ability to create electromagnets. Electricity is just a flow of electrons around a circuit, so an electrical wire will produce a magnetic field just like a magnet.

Electromagnets are usually made out of a coil of wire -- a wire curled into a series of turns. This strengthens and concentrates the magnetic field more than a single stretch of wire. The wire turns are often coiled around a regular magnet, made of a ferromagnetic material like iron. This makes the electromagnet more powerful.

Uses of Electromagnets

Electromagnets are used in all kinds of electric devices, including hard disk drives, speakers, motors, and generators, as well as in scrap yards to pick up heavy scrap metal. They're even used in MRI machines, which utilize magnets to take photos of your insides!

Motors and generators are vital to everything we do in the modern world. A motor takes electrical energy and uses a magnet to turn it into motion. A generator does the opposite: it takes motion and uses it with a magnet to generate electricity.

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