How Do Magnets Work? - We Did Extensive Research!

Magnets are objects that we interact with daily from when we move a refrigerator magnet to hold a note in place to when we use our credit cards at the grocery store. With how often we use them, the general population doesn’t know much about the science or the delicate nature behind magnets.

How Do Magnets Work? When a magnet forms when the electrons an object line up in the same direction creating a field. This magnetic field can attract or repel the particles of other objects. This is what makes the magnets able to pull objects forward or push them away.

Magnets are simple objects, yet there are still some parts about what makes a magnet work that is still trying to be understood. If you want to learn more about what makes magnets work and how they continue to work even after years of use, keep reading.

How Do Magnets Work?

Before we can understand how magnets work, we need to know what kinds of magnets there are. We can then figure out how these different types of magnets react to other objects and each other.

Types of Magnets

Permanent Temporary Electrical

There are three main types of magnets, all of which we will be discussing in this article. They are classified as permanent, temporary, and electrical magnets.

Permanent magnets are the ones we use on our refrigerators or use in the science classrooms. They work without being introduced to a different magnetic field or having an electric current run through it.

In other words, permanent magnets are the most basic types of magnets that you probably come in contact with on a daily basis.

Temporary magnets, on the other hand, function like permanent magnets when they are in a magnetic field, however, once the object leaves the area, it loses its magnetic charge.

As an example of this concept, think of a paper clip that has been rubbed on a refrigerator magnet. For a while, the paper clip will be magnetized, but eventually, it will lose its magnetic charge.

This is exactly what a temporary magnet is. You can think of it as essentially the opposite of the permanent magnet that was first described in this section.

Finally, an electrical magnet is a magnet that functions when electricity is running through it. It is a piece of iron with a conducting coil wrapped around the metal core. The coil is what receives the electric charge and magnetized the core.

These magnets can also be made of a variety of materials. These materials are either paramagnetic or ferromagnetic. A paramagnetic material has a weaker magnetic field that a ferromagnetic material, though.

A paramagnetic material can be magnesium or lithium, while a ferromagnetic material, which is more common because it can form a stronger magnetic field, include metals such as nickel, iron, cobalt, and more.

While reading through this article, assume that the magnet being referred to is a permanent magnet made from ferromagnetic materials.

A permanent magnet, such as a refrigerator magnet, is something more familiar to the average consumer, and ferromagnetic materials, as mentioned before, are more common when it comes to what makes up a magnet.

So, let’s get into a deeper explanation of how magnets actually work when they are reacting to each other as well as other objects. Take a look at the list down below to get a few main points on the topic, and keep reading to get all of the details.

How Magnets Work:

  1. Electrons of the magnet are lined up correctly
  2. The magnet’s electrons push or pull objects and other magnets

As previously stated, a magnet works because the electrons of the magnet are lined up correctly. 

An electron is a negative subatomic particle. Everything is made up of electrons; however, an electric or magnetic field is only created when all the electrons line up their negative charge in the same direction.

We know that a magnet’s electrons are what pushes or pulls an object. Scientists have two theories that explain how the magnetic field produced by these lined up electrons communicate with the particles of other objects.

These two theories are the large-scale classical theory and the quantum mechanics small scale theory.

Since it would be difficult to understand the concepts of these theories by just reading the names, we have done some in-depth research in order to put together a detailed explanation of each one, which you will find in the data table down below.

Take a quick look over this information, which will provide you with the main ideas for both of these theories, and keep reading to get all of the details that we’ve managed to dig up.

Magnetic TheoryLarge-Scale Classical TheoryQuantom Mechanics Small Scale Theory
Reaction of Magnetic field: The Magnetic Field Creates Clouds Of Energy The Magnetic Field Gives Off Invisible Particles
How The Magnetic Theory Works: The Clouds Interact With Other Objects Through Their Electrons The Particles Interact With The Electrons Of Other Objects
How The Objects Are Attracted: The Clouds Push And Pull The Electrons Of The Other Object The Invisbile Particles Tell The Electrons Of The Object To Move (Forward or Backward)

When you are trying to understand how magnets work, it is important to get a good grasp on the scientific concept that is behind these reactions. These concepts lie within the Large-Scale Classical Theory and Quantum Mechanics Small Scale Theory.

The large-scale theory is the first concept that we will be going over in this section. It basically suggests that the magnetic field creates clouds of energy within it.

These clouds, as a result, will interact with the electrons that exist within the other objects, pushing or pulling the electrons.

The small-scale theory, on the contrary, states that the electrons in a magnetic field give off invisible particles.

In short, these particles tell the electrons of the object to move forward, which would be toward the magnet, or backward, meaning away from the magnet.

The most basic differences between these two theories occur in the reaction of the magnetic field. They either create clouds of energy or invisible particles, but ultimately these components will manipulate the electrons of the object in question in order to attract or repel it.

However, there are some elements of magnets that science can’t explain. To better understand these factors, take a look at the list down below.

Unexplainable Elements Of Magnets:

  1. The Polarity (North and South Poles)
  2. Electric Field Emissions (Why They Do It)

The first is how magnets always have a north and south pole. These poles essentially determine what a magnet will be attracted to and how it will execute its pull. Through all of the related scientific research, there is no conclusive evidence of why this is.

Additionally, scientists are not sure why the particles of a magnet emit an electric field at all. In other words, while we know that magnets have different poles and give off electric fields, we don’t know why. Time will tell if we will ever find the answers to these questions, though.

How Magnets React to Each Other

In middle school science, classrooms across the globe students are introduced to magnets and how they work. You might even remember these lessons from your own school aged years.

A common and straightforward experiment that helps children learn about the power of magnets includes turning a needle floating on a piece of paper in a cup of water into a compass.

When completed, this type of experiment would show you exactly how magnetic fields and their poles work.

The compass experiment and other similar experiments help in understanding magnetic poles, which is the main idea of what we will be going over in this section.

Seeing magnetic poles work will help in understanding how magnets act and change whenever they are near each other. For visualization, think of a magnet like a globe with its northern and southern poles that keep the planet in rotation.

Magnets can either attract or repel each other, depending on their poles. To begin this discussion, let’s touch on a few main points before we get too in-depth about the topic.

Magnetic Poles:

  • North and South Pole (one on each side)
  • Attract and repel the magnet from other objects/magnets
  • Attract = come together /Repel = move apart
  • Correct poles must be lined up in order to bring two magnets together

The poles on a magnet are classified as North and South poles, with one on each respective side. Each pole will determine whether the magnet will be attracted or repelled from other objects or magnets.

These terms are basically exactly what they sound like: if they are attracted to each other, then the magnets will be pulled together.

Contrarily, if they repel each other, you will find that when you hold them next to each other, their respective magnetic fields will keep them from touching each other.

If the opposite poles of the magnets come in contact, then they will be attracted to each other. However, if the magnets are touching the same poles, then the magnets will repel each other. Continue reading to get all of the details on magnets reacting to each other.

How Magnets React To Each Other (In Terms Of Poles):

  • North to North: Repel
  • South to South: Repel
  • North to South: Attract

Some additional factors can affect magnets reactions to each other, such as size and type of material used.

For instance, a smaller magnet made of paramagnetic material will have a weaker attraction and repulsion than a larger magnet made up of ferromagnetic materials.

To Recap:

  • Magnets have North and South Poles
  • The poles on each side of the magnet determine what they will be attracted to (including other magnets)
  • Opposite poles attract, while the same poles repel each other

Do Magnets Ever Stop Working?

Although their name might imply otherwise, permanent magnets can still lose charge or magnetism. In other words, permanent magnets are not necessarily permanent.

This theory can be tested by applying a magnet to a vertical metal object. If the magnet slides or if the magnet is easily removed, that means you have a weakened magnet.

The best way to know how to prevent a magnet from weakening, or just to understand how this process works in general, is by knowing what causes weakened magnets.

Leadings Causes For Weakened/Demagnetized Magnets:

  • Temperature Change (Extreme Heat)
  • Another Magnet (Stronger)
  • Shock (Strong Physical Force)

There are three ways that a magnet can become weakened or demagnetized: temperature change, another magnet, or shock.

The first way a magnet can lose its magnetism is by coming in contact with excessive level of heat. More specifically, this occurs when a magnet is heated to “Curie point”, or the point where the magnet will lose its magnetism.

The Curie point will vary depending on the strength of the magnet and the material the magnet is made of. With that being said, depending on the type of material the magnet is made of, it can have a high or low Curie point.

The second way a magnet can lose its magnetic strength is through a demagnetizing field.

A demagnetizing field is when a stronger magnet with an opposite pole is applied to the magnet being demagnetized. If the magnet is demagnetized on its north side, then the stronger magnet will be using its south side to complete this action.

The third way a magnet can be demagnetized is through shock. Shock does not mean an electrical shock, though; it means being hit with a very strong physical force.

If the properly working magnet is struck hard enough, then the inner workings of the magnet will be misaligned. This misalignment will cause the electrons to no longer form a magnetic field.

Most magnets, when weakened, will return to their original charge eventually when given time. Permanent magnetic field loss only occurs when the magnet has been exposed to significant demagnetization for an extended period of time.

Can You Fix a Magnet That Loses Its Strength?

After reading the information about demagnetization in the previous section, you might be wondering if it is possible for the force to be recovered once this is done. The answer to this question is yes: magnets can be re-magnetized when they lose their strength.

Here are the ways that a magnet can be strengthened after it has lost its force:

  • Shock (extreme force, not electrical)
  • Magnetization though a stronger magnet
  • Direct contact with weaker magnets (ie stacking)
  • Freezing temperatures

There are four ways that magnets can be strengthened again: through shock, a stronger magnetic field, direct contact with other magnets, and reaching extremely low temperatures.

The first way that the magnetism or strength of a magnet can be recouped is through shock. Just like with losing magnetism, the shock isn’t electrical, but extreme force.

While this does seem counter-intuitive, the theory is that if the first blow misaligned the interior of the magnet then striking the magnet again will allow the electrons to line up again. If done correctly, the magnet can work just as well as it did before.

The second way to re-magnetize a magnet is through rubbing a stronger magnet against the weaker magnet. Some of the magnetic charges will transfer to the weakened magnet, therefore allowing it to regain some or all of its force.

Think of the compass experiment mentioned earlier. If you run the needle along the length of a magnet, the needle will absorb some of the magnetic charges.

For a compass, this is enough. If you need to recharge something more substantial than a needle for a compass, make sure you have a stronger magnet.

The third way that a magnet can regain its original power is by coming in direct contact with another weak magnet. The joint charge of these two magnets will make them stronger.

The fourth and final way that a magnet can become re-magnetized is through reaching freezing temperatures. Just as allowing the magnet to become too hot can disrupt the integrity of the magnet, placing it in cold temperatures instead will counteract these effects and restore the magnetic field.

The fact that two of the three ways to restore charge to the magnet are the same ways you can lose the magnetic charge shows just how adaptable and resilient magnets can be. If the magnets are not restored through the methods mentioned above, chances are it has been permanently demagnetized.

Magnets seem to be a source of endless curiosity. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Ph.D. wielding physicist working on the Hadron Collider to a three-year-old toddler just discovering the magic of magnets on the refrigerator.

While it is true that there are a lot of aspects about magnets and the way they work that are non-conclusive as far as scientific research goes, there are a lot of things to take away from this lesson.

With so many things to learn about magnets, we are still searching for new ways to play with and understand them.