Electricity and magnetism are closely related. You might have seen giant steel electromagnets working in a scrapyard. An electromagnet is a magnet that can be switched on and off with electricity. When the current flows, it works like a magnet; when the current stops, it goes back to being an ordinary, unmagnetized piece of steel. Scrapyard cranes pick up bits of metal junk by switching the magnet on. To release the junk, they switch the magnet off again.
Electromagnets show that electricity can make magnetism, but how do they work? When electricity flows through a wire, it creates an invisible pattern of magnetism all around it. If you put a compass needle near an electric cable, and switch the electricity on or off, you can see the needle move because of the magnetism the cable generates. The magnetism is caused by the changing electricity when you switch the current on or off.
This is how an electric motor works. An electric motor is a machine that turns electricity into mechanical energy. In other words, electric power makes the motor spin around—and the motor can drive machinery. In a clothes washing machine, an electric motor spins the drum; in an electric drill, an electric motor makes the drill bit spin at high speed and bite into the material you’re drilling. An electric motor is a cylinder packed with magnets around its edge. In the middle, there’s a core made of iron wire wrapped around many times. When electricity flows into the iron core, it creates magnetism. The magnetism created in the core pushes against the magnetism in the outer cylinder and makes the core of the motor spin around. Read more in our main article on electric motors.
Make an electromagnet
Picture: Why not make an electromagnet? All you need is a few common household items.
You can make a small electromagnet using a battery, some insulated (plastic-covered) copper wire, and a nail. Here are a couple of websites that tell you what to do step-by-step:
- How do I make an electromagnet?: Handy hints from Jefferson Lab.