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An electromagnet is a type of magnet in which the magnetic field is produced by an electric current. The magnetic field disappears when the current is turned off. Electromagnets usually consist of a large number of closely spaced turns of wire that create the magnetic field. The wire turns are often wound around a magnetic core made from a ferromagnetic or ferrimagnetic material such as iron; the magnetic core concentrates the magnetic flux and makes a more powerful magnet.


The main advantage of an electromagnet over a permanent magnet is that the magnetic field can be quickly changed by controlling the amount of electric current in the winding. However, unlike a permanent magnet that needs no power, an electromagnet requires a continuous supply of electrical energy to maintain a magnetic field.


Electromagnets are widely used as components of other electrical devices, such as motors, generators, relays, loudspeakers, hard disks, MRI machines, scientific instruments, and magnetic separation equipment. Electomagnets are also employed in industry for picking up and moving heavy iron objects such as scrap iron and steel.





Danish scientist Hans Christian Orsted discovered in 1820 that electric currents create magnetic fields. British scientist William Sturgeon invented the electromagnet in 1824. His first electromagnet was a horseshoe-shaped piece of iron that was wrapped with about 18 turns of bare copper wire (insulated wire didn't exist yet). The iron was varnished to insulate it from the windings. When a current was passed through the coil, the iron became magnetized and attracted other pieces of iron; when the current was stopped, it lost magnetization. Sturgeon displayed its power by showing that although it only weighed seven ounces (roughly 200 grams), it could lift nine pounds (roughly 4 kilos) when the current of a single-cell battery was applied. However, Sturgeon's magnets were weak because the uninsulated wire he used could only be wrapped in a single spaced out layer around the core, limiting the number of turns.

Beginning in 1827, US scientist Joseph Henry systematically improved and popularized the electromagnet. By using wire insulated by silk thread he was able to wind multiple layers of wire on cores, creating powerful magnets with thousands of turns of wire, including one that could support 2,063 lb (936 kg). The first major use for electromagnets was in telegraph sounders.

The magnetic domain theory of how ferromagnetic cores work was first proposed in 1906 by French physicist Pierre-Ernest Weiss, and the detailed modern quantum mechanical theory of ferromagnetism was worked out in the 1920s by Werner Heisenberg, Lev Landau, Felix Bloch and others.




Electricity and magnetism are very closely related. This is dramatically demonstrated by the electromagnet. An electromagnet is a magnet made with electricity. Normal magnets are called permanent magnets. An electromagnet has the same properties as an ordinary magnet. It has a north and south pole and it attracts steel and iron. It is different from a permanent magnet because it can be turned on and off.

When electricity flows in a circle of wire, it makes a magnet. One side of the wire is a north pole, the other side is a south pole. If there are many loops of wire, the magnet is stronger.


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The magnetic field lines of a current-carrying loop of wire pass through the center of the loop, concentrating the field there

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Current (I) through a wire produces a magnetic field (B). The field is oriented according to the right-hand rule.


An electric current flowing in a wire creates a magnetic field around the wire, due to Ampere's law. To concentrate the magnetic field, in an electromagnet the wire is wound into a coil with many turns of wire lying side by side. The magnetic field of all the turns of wire passes through the center of the coil, creating a strong magnetic field there. A coil forming the shape of a straight tube (a helix) is called a solenoid.


The direction of the magnetic field through a coil of wire can be found from a form of the right-hand rule. If the fingers of the right hand are curled around the coil in the direction of current flow (conventional current, flow of positive charge) through the windings, the thumb points in the direction of the field inside the coil. The side of the magnet that the field lines emerge from is defined to be the north pole.


Much stronger magnetic fields can be produced if a "magnetic core" of a soft ferromagnetic (or ferrimagnetic) material, such as iron, is placed inside the coil. A core can increase the magnetic field to thousands of times the strength of the field of the coil alone, due to the high magnetic permeability µ of the material. This is called a ferromagnetic-core or iron-core electromagnet. However, not all electromagnets use cores, and the very strongest electromagnets, such as superconducting and the very high current electromagnets which have important uses, cannot use them due to saturation.


Ampere's law


The magnetic field of electromagnets in the general case is given by Ampere's Law:


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which says that the integral of the magnetizing field H around any closed loop of the field is equal to the sum of the current flowing through the loop. Another equation used, that gives the magnetic field due to each small segment of current, is the Biot–Savart law. Computing the magnetic field and force exerted by ferromagnetic materials is difficult for two reasons. First, because the strength of the field varies from point to point in a complicated way, particularly outside the core and in air gaps, where fringing fields and leakage flux must be considered. Second, because the magnetic field B and force are nonlinear functions of the current, depending on the nonlinear relation between B and H for the particular core material used. For precise calculations, computer programs that can produce a model of the magnetic field using the finite element method are employed.


Magnetic core



The material of a magnetic core (often made of iron or steel) is composed of small regions called magnetic domains that act like tiny magnets (see ferromagnetism). Before the current in the electromagnet is turned on, the domains in the iron core point in random directions, so their tiny magnetic fields cancel each other out, and the iron has no large scale magnetic field. When a current is passed through the wire wrapped around the iron, its magnetic field penetrates the iron, and causes the domains to turn, aligning parallel to the magnetic field, so their tiny magnetic fields add to the wire's field, creating a large magnetic field that extends into the space around the magnet. The effect of the core is to concentrate the field, and the magnetic field passes through the core more easily than it would pass through air.

The larger the current passed through the wire coil, the more the domains align, and the stronger the magnetic field is. Finally all the domains are lined up, and further increases in current only cause slight increases in the magnetic field: this phenomenon is called saturation.

When the current in the coil is turned off, in the magnetically soft materials that are nearly always used as cores, most of the domains lose alignment and return to a random state and the field disappears. However some of the alignment persists, because the domains have difficulty turning their direction of magnetization, leaving the core a weak permanent magnet. This phenomenon is called hysteresis and the remaining magnetic field is called remanent magnetism. The residual magnetization of the core can be removed by degaussing. In alternating current electromagnets, such as are used in motors, the core's magnetisation is constantly reversed, and the remanence contributes to the motor's losses.


Uses of electromagnets



Electromagnets are very widely used in electric and electromechanical devices, including:


  • Motors and generators

  • Transformers

  • Relays, including reed relays originally used in telephone exchanges

  • Electric bells and buzzers

  • Loudspeakers and earphones

  • Actuators

  • Magnetic recording and data storage equipment: tape recorders, VCRs, hard disks

  • MRI machines

  • Scientific equipment such as mass spectrometers

  • Particle accelerators

  • Magnetic locks

  • Magnetic separation equipment, used for separating magnetic from nonmagnetic material, for example separating ferrous metal from other material in scrap.

  • Industrial lifting magnets

  • Electromagnetic suspension used for MAGLEV trains

  • Induction heating for cooking, manufacturing