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How does a Metal Detector Work?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 17, 2024
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According to Lenz's law of electromagnetism, when a conductor falls within a certain range of an oscillating (alternating) magnetic field, it generates an oscillating field of its own, which opposes the primary field. A magnetometer can pick up the resulting changes in the overall field, signaling the nearby presence of a conductive object, typically a piece of metal. The range of metal detectors varies from a few feet for the smallest coils, to 10 feet (3 m) for 12 to 15-inch (30.5 to 38.1 cm) coils.

The key to a functioning metal detector is the presence of eddy currents generated by conductive objects in the environment. Just like pushing a paddle through a lake of water can cause little vortices to appear on the surface, producing an oscillating field in the environment causes electromagnetic vortices when the electrons in metal generate their own oscillating field. Frequencies of 3 to 20 kHz are known to produce the best results, and some more modern metal detectors even allow the operator to change the frequency of the alternating field.

A different, newer type of metal detector uses a technology called pulse induction. This metal detector blasts the ground with a large electromagnetic pulse, and observes the length of time it takes for the voltage to decrease to ambient levels. If there is a conductive object under the ground, it will take a longer amount of time for the voltage to decrease. It is a small effect, but modern sensors can pick it up well. This technique has certain advantages over conventional metal detectors, such as the ability to detect objects under highly mineralized "black sand."

The applications of metal detectors are numerous and generally well-known. Perhaps the most important application for any metal detector is to locate mines or improvised explosive devices buried just under the surface. In some countries where mines still remain from old wars, such as Vietnam, people are advised to use metal detectors when walking through unfamiliar areas known to be at risk for the presence of land mines. This can save many lives.

Another common use for the metal detector is searching for "buried treasure" - coins and relics from years or even millennia in the past. Searching a beach that has many visitors can bring up lost items from only a few days past. This is not a viable way to make a living, but some people enjoy it as a hobby.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated About Mechanics contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By donbri5 — On Mar 02, 2011

@healthnwell--There are a lot of metal detectors out there. Depending on what you and your husband are looking for, a hand-held metal detector is probably best.

If you do a search for metal detectors and include the type of place you wish to use it, a lot of options pop up.

The other thing to consider is the price range you are looking at. You can buy a metal detector for one hundred dollars on up to over one thousand.

When I purchased one for my husband, I made sure it came with a warranty and some different sized coils.

Have fun and good hunting!

By healthnwell — On Mar 01, 2011

My husband wants to get a metal detector to use in his spare time. I think it will make a nice hobby we can enjoy together. Does anyone have any ideas on the best medal detectors to buy for the hobbyist?

I don't think I need the top of the line like those used for searching underground mines,our treasure hunting will most likely take place on beaches and camp grounds. Thanks, our anniversary is coming up and I want to surprise him!

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated About Mechanics contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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