Magnetic forces: what are they?

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Magnetic forces act on magnetic objects or charged particles in a magnetic field. Permanent magnets attract certain metals, and their internal structures are aligned during formation. Magnetic fields are created by permanent magnets or electric currents. Magnetic forces are used in everyday situations, such as refrigerator magnets. Opposite poles of magnets attract, while the same poles repel. Electric generators and motors use the interaction between magnets and electric currents to produce mechanical motion.

Magnetic forces act on magnetic objects or charged particles moving through a magnetic field. They are affected by the strength of the magnetic field, a particle’s total charge, and its speed and direction. Permanent magnets have their molecular structures aligned during formation to attract certain types of metals. Magnetic forces are harnessed when electricity is converted into mechanical rotation and vice versa.

The medium through which these forces are transmitted is the magnetic field. A magnetic field is created with a permanent magnet or an electric current. Since an electric current is a flow of moving charge carriers, such as electrons, it can be analyzed by considering only one particle. Thus, a single electron moving through space will create a magnetic field.

A common application of magnetic forces is the refrigerator magnet, which is a permanent magnet. Permanent magnets are subjected to a strong magnetic field when they are manufactured. In this process, their internal crystalline structures are aligned in such a way that they remain magnetized. A permanent magnet will attract ferromagnetic materials such as iron. Ferromagnetism is only one source of magnetic forces, but it is one commonly associated with magnetism in everyday situations.

Permanent magnets also exert magnetic forces on other magnets. This is when the poles of the magnets become important. Unlike electric field lines, magnetic field lines always go around and form a closed loop. In other words, magnets always have two distinct poles, conventionally called the north pole and the south pole. The same poles of two different magnets repel each other, while opposite poles attract each other.

Another situation where magnetic forces will arise involves two nearby electric currents traveling at right angles to each other. These currents will produce their own magnetic fields, but will have different orientations, leading to forces between the two currents. The more current there is, the stronger the forces will be.

The interaction between magnets and an electric current underlies both the electric generator and the electric motor. For a generator, the mechanical motion produced by a power plant or engine spins a component with magnets on it. The changing magnetic field will induce an electric current in the other part of the generator. When the device is used as a motor, it is the electric current that is supplied. The same magnetic forces will produce mechanical torque to spin the other side of the motor.

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