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How does a magnet work?

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Atomic structure

Magnetic atom: protons with north and south poles, electrons with north and south poles, and neutrons The way a magnet works is determined by its overall atomic structure. Every atom is made up of negative electrons circling around positive protons and neutrons (called a nucleus), which are effectively microscopic magnets with north and south poles.
Electrons moving around protons with a magnetic field The electrons of a magnet move around the protons to create an orbital magnetic field.

Magnets have what is known as a half shell of electrons; in other words, they are not paired up like other materials. These electrons then line up, which creates a magnetic field.

Crystals of a ferromagnetic material and a non-ferromagnetic material All atoms align in groups which are known as crystals. The ferromagnetic crystals then align themselves to their magnetic poles. In a non-ferromagnetic material, on the other hand, they are randomly placed to cancel out any magnetic properties they may have.
Magnetic domain: made up of crystals and atoms with labelled north and south poles A collection of crystals will then line up into domains, which are then all aligned in the same magnetic direction. The more domains that point in the same direction, the greater the magnetic force will be.
Aligned ferromagnetic domains and random non-ferromagnetic domains When a ferromagnetic material comes into contact with the magnet, the domains in this material align themselves with the domains in the magnet. Non-ferromagnetic materials do not move into alignment with the magnetic domains and stay in a random formation.

Attracting ferromagnetic materials

Magnetised ferromagnetic material with domains and magnet By attaching a ferromagnetic material to a magnet, a closed circuit is formed by the magnetic field travelling from the north pole, through the ferromagnetic material, and then to the south pole.
Magnetic pull force of an orange trigger lift hand magnet, lifting a sheet of steel The attraction of a ferromagnetic material to a magnet, and its ability to hold onto to it, is referred to as the magnet’s pull force. The larger the pull force of the magnet, the more material it can attract.
Rusty pocket horseshoe magnet A magnet’s pull force is determined by a number of different factors:

  • How the magnet has been coated
  • Any damage which may have occurred to the surface of the magnet e.g. rust
  • The thickness of ferromagnetic material (attaching to a piece of ferromagnetic material that is too thin will make the magnetic pull weaker by trapping the magnetic field lines).