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What is a Permanent Magnet?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 17, 2024
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A permanent magnet is a magnet that is permanent, in contrast to an electromagnet, which only behaves like a magnet when an electric current is flowing through it. Permanent magnets are made out of substances like magnetite (Fe3O4), the most magnetic naturally occurring mineral, or neodymium, a powerfully magnetic synthetic substance. The Earth itself is a huge permanent magnet, though its magnetic field is quite weak relative to its size. Humans have used the magnetic field of the Earth for navigation since the compass was invented in ancient China.

Even the most powerful permanent magnet is not as strong as the stronger electromagnets, so their applications are limited, but they still have many uses. The most mundane would be use as refrigerator magnets, but magnets can be found everywhere, including your hard disk, ATM and credit cards, speakers and microphones, electric motors, and toys. Electric motors work through an interaction between an electromagnet and a permanent magnet.

Every permanent magnet generates a magnetic field, just like any other magnet, which circulates around the magnet is a distinct pattern. The size of the magnetic field is related to the size of the magnet and its strength. The easiest way to view a magnetic field generated by a permanent magnet is to scatter iron filings around a bar magnet, which quickly orient themselves along the field lines.

Every permanent magnet has two poles, named north and south, though they could have just as easily been called A and B. Similar poles repel while opposite poles attract. It takes a lot of effort to hold repelling poles of a magnet together, while it takes effort to remove attracting poles. The most powerful magnets attract so hard that they can cause injuries by pinching skin between them.

For thousands of years, permanent magnets were the only magnets that humans had. The electromagnet was only invented in 1823. Before that, magnets were mostly novelties. Using an electromagnet, it is possible to induce a current in any ferromagnetic materials, such as an iron paperclip. The effect quickly fades, however.

Permanent magnets can be a nuisance by threatening to erase data from ATM cards or computer hard drives. A common way of erasing data from a computer hard drive and making sure it is irrecoverable is to run a magnet over it. Otherwise, "deleted" files actually remain on a computer, just hidden. This is because it is more work to have the computer actually delete the data. Rather, the data is designated as a sector of the hard drive that can be written over without concern.

AboutMechanics 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 is a longtime AboutMechanics contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Discussion Comments

By BostonIrish — On Jan 30, 2011

The permanence and consistency of a magnetic force is generated ultimately by the generative nuclear reaction of the sun.

By ShadowGenius — On Jan 28, 2011

Non-permanent magnets can be made by using permanent magnets on metal objects. These metal objects conduct the magnetic force and attract other metal objects to stick to them. This is used in certain scientific gadgets and toys which you can purchase at Discovery stores.

By BigBloom — On Jan 26, 2011

Permanent magnets make up the key instruments in voice projection, used in bands and in speaking. When sound waves hit a thin layer of plastic, it transmits the vibrations to a magnet, which vibrates on a metal spring, generating an electric force which transmits the voice waves into a signal, echoing the voice across a wire and into a larger vibrating speaker system.

By Renegade — On Jan 25, 2011

The magnificent force of gravity seems to behave something like magnetism. The earth's electromagnetic force may seem weak from where we are, but that may because it is tied to a much larger magnetic force. The interaction of various forces is something of a mystery to scientists, and the origins and similarities of these forces is even more puzzling. These abstract theories form the stuff of cosmology.

Michael Anissimov

Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AboutMechanics contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology...

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