Magnetism - Real-life applications
F INDING THE W AY : M AGNETS IN C OMPASSES
A north-south bar magnet exerts exactly the same sort of magnetic field as a solenoid. Lines of magnetic run through it in one direction, from "south" to "north," and upon leaving the north pole of the magnet, these lines describe an ellipse as they curve back around to the south pole. In view of this model, it is also easy to comprehend why a pair of opposing poles attracts one another, and a pair of like poles—for whom the lines of force are moving away from each other—repels. This is a fact particularly applicable to the operation of MAGLEV trains, as discussed later.
A magnetic compass works because Earth itself is like a giant bar magnet, complete with vast arcs of magnetic force, called the geomagnetic field, surrounding the planet. The first scientist to recognize the magnetic properties of Earth was the English physicist William Gilbert (1544-1603). Scientists today believe that the source of Earth's magnetism lies in a core of molten iron some 4,320 mi (6,940 km) across, constituting half the planet's diameter. Within this core run powerful electric currents that ultimately create the geomagnetic field.
Just as a powerful magnet causes all the domains in a magnetic metal to align with it, a bar magnet placed in a magnetic field will rotate until it lines up with the field's direction. The same thing happens when one suspends a magnet from a string: it lines up with Earth's magnetic field, and points in a north-south direction. The Chinese of the first century B.C. , though unaware of the electromagnetic forces that caused this to happen, discovered that a strip of magnetic metal always tended to point toward geographic north.
This led ultimately to the development of the magnetic compass, which typically consists of a magnetized iron needle suspended over a card marked with the four cardinal directions. The needle is attached to a pivoting mechanism at its center, which allows it to move freely so that the "north" end will always point the user northward.
The magnetic compass proved so important that it is typically ranked alongside paper, printing, and gunpowder as one of premodern China's four great gifts to the West. Prior to the compass, mariners had to depend purely on the position of the Sun and other, less reliable, means of determining direction; hence the invention quite literally helped open up the world. But there is a somewhat irksome anomaly lurking in the seeming simplicity of the magnetic compass.
In fact magnetic north is not the same thing as true north; or, to put it another way, if one continued to follow a compass northward, it would lead not to the Earth's North Pole, but to a point identified in 1984 as 77°N, 102°18′ W—that is, in the Queen Elizabeth Islands of far northern Canada. The reason for this is that Earth's magnetic field describes a current loop whose center is 11° off the planet's equator, and thus the north and south magnetic poles—which are on a plane perpendicular to that of the Earth's magnetic field—are 11° off of the planet's axis.
The magnetic field of Earth is changing position slowly, and every few years the United States Geological Survey updates magnetic declination, or the shift in the magnetic field. In addition, Earth's magnetic field is slowly weakening as well. The behavior, both in terms of weakening and movement, appears to be similar to changes taking place in the magnetic field of the Sun.
M AGNETS FOR D ETECTION : B URGLAR A LARMS , M AGNETOMETERS , AND MRI
A compass is a simple magnetic instrument, and a burglar alarm is not much more complex. A magnetometer, on the other hand, is a much more sophisticated piece of machinery for detecting the strength of magnetic fields. Nonetheless, the magnetometer bears a relation to its simpler cousins: like a compass, certain kinds of magnetometers respond to a planet's magnetic field; and like a burglar alarm, other varieties of magnetometer are employed for security.
At heart, a burglar alarm consists of a contact switch, which responds to changes in the environment and sends a signal to a noisemaking device. The contact switch may be mechanical—a simple fastener, for instance—or magnetic. In the latter case, a permanent magnet may be installed in the frame of a window or door, and a piece of magnetized material in the window or door itself. Once the alarm is activated, it will respond to any change in the magnetic field—i.e., when someone slides open the door or window, thus breaking the connection between magnet and metal.
Though burglar alarms may vary in complexity, and indeed there may be much more advanced systems using microwaves or infrared rays, the application of magnetism in home security is a simple matter of responding to changes in a magnetic field. In this regard, the principle governing magnetometers used at security checkpoints is even simpler. Whether at an airport or at the entrance to some other high-security venue, whether handheld or stationary, a magnetometer merely detects the presence of magnetic metals. Since the vast majority of firearms, knife-blades, and other weapons are made of iron or steel, this provides a fairly efficient means of detection.
At a much larger scale, magnetometers used by astronomers detect the strength and sometimes the direction of magnetic fields surrounding Earth and other bodies in space. This variety of magnetometer dates back to 1832, when mathematician and scientist Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) developed a simple instrument consisting of a permanent bar magnet suspended horizontally by means of a gold wire. By measuring the period of the magnet's oscillation in Earth's magnetic field (or magnetosphere), Gauss was able to measure the strength of that field. Gauss's name, incidentally, would later be applied to the term for a unit of magnetic force. The gauss, however, has in recent years been largely replaced by the tesla, named after Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), which is equal to one newton/ampere meter (1 N/A·m) or 10 4 (10,000) gauss.
As for magnetometers used in astronomical research, perhaps the most prominent—and certainly one of the most distant—ones is on Galileo , a craft launched by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) toward Jupiter on October 15, 1989. Among other instruments on board Galileo , which has been in orbit around the solar system's largest planet since 1995, is a magnetometer for measuring Jupiter's magnetosphere and that of its surrounding asteroids and moons.
Closer to home, but no less impressive, is another application of magnetism for the purposes of detection: magnetic resonance imagining, or MRI. First developed in the early 1970s, MRI permits doctors to make intensive diagnoses without invading the patient's body either with a surgical knife or x rays.
The heart of the MRI machine is a large tube into which the patient is placed in a supine position. A technician then activates a powerful magnetic field, which causes atoms within the patient's body to spin at precise frequencies. The machine then beams radio signals at a frequency matching that of the atoms in the cells (e.g., cancer cells) being sought. Upon shutting off the radio signals and magnetic field, those atoms emit bursts of energy that they have absorbed from the radio waves. At that point a computer scans the body for frequencies matching specific types of atoms, and translates these into three-dimensional images for diagnosis.
M AGNETS FOR P ROJECTING S OUND : M ICROPHONES , L OUDSPEAKERS , C AR H ORNS , AND E LECTRIC B ELLS
The magnets used in Galileo or an MRI machine are, needless to say, very powerful ones, and as noted earlier, the best way to create a super-strong, controllable magnet is with an electrical current. When that current is properly coiled around a magnetic metal, this creates an electromagnet, which can be used in a variety of applications.
As discussed above, the most powerful electromagnets typically use nonpermanent magnets so as to facilitate an easy transition from an extremely strong magnetic field to a weak or nonexistent one. On the other hand, permanent magnets are also used in loudspeakers and similar electromagnetic devices, which seldom require enormous levels of power.
In discussing the operation of a loudspeaker, it is first necessary to gain a basic understanding of how a microphone works. The latter contains a capacitor, a system for storing charges in the form of an electrical field. The capacitor's negatively charged plate constitutes the microphone's diaphragm, which, when it is hit by sound waves, vibrates at the same frequency as those waves. Current flows back and forth between the diaphragm and the positive plate of the capacitor, depending on whether the electrostatic or electrical pull is increasing or decreasing. This in turn produces an alternating current, at the same frequency as the sound waves, which travels through a mixer and then an amplifier to the speaker.
A loudspeaker typically contains a circular permanent magnet, which surrounds an electrical coil and is in turn attached to a cone-shaped diaphragm. Current enters the speaker ultimately from the microphone, alternating at the same frequency as the source of the sound (a singer's voice, for instance). As it enters the coil, this current induces an alternating magnetic field, which causes the coil to vibrate. This in turn vibrates the cone-shaped diaphragm, and the latter reproduces sounds generated at the source.
A car horn also uses magnetism to create sound by means of vibration. When a person presses down on the horn embedded in his or her steering wheel, this in turn depresses an iron bar that passes through an electromagnet surrounded by wires from the car's battery. The bar moves up and down within the electromagnetic field, causing the diaphragm to vibrate and producing a sound that is magnified greatly when released through a bell-shaped horn.
Electromagnetically induced vibration is also the secret behind another noise-making device, a vibrating electric doorbell used in many apartments. The button that a visitor presses is connected directly to a power source, which sends current flowing through a spring surrounding an electromagnet. The latter generates a magnetic field, drawing toward it an iron armature attached to a hammer. The hammer then strikes the bell. The result is a mechanical reaction that pushes the armature away from the electromagnet, but the spring forces the armature back against the electromagnet again. This cycle of contact and release continues for as long as the button is depressed, causing a continual ringing of the bell.
R ECORDING AND R EADING D ATA U SING M AGNETS : F ROM R ECORDS AND T APES TO D ISK D RIVES
Just as magnetism plays a critical role in projecting the volume of sound, it is also crucial to the recording and retrieval of sound and other data. Of course terms such as "retrieval" and "data" have an information-age sound to them, but the idea of using magnetism to record sound is an old one—much older than computers or compact discs (CDs). The latter, of course, replaced cassettes in the late 1980s as the preferred mode for listening to recorded music, just as cassettes had recently made powerful gains against phonograph records.
Despite the fact that cassettes entered the market much later than records, however, recording engineers from the mid-twentieth century onward typically used magnetic tape for master recordings of songs. This master would then be used to create a metal master record disk by means of a cutting head that responded to vibrations from the master tape; then, the record company could produce endless plastic copies of the metal record.
In recording a tape—whether a stereo master or a mere home recording of a conversation—the principles at work are more or less the same. As noted in the earlier illustration involving a microphone and loudspeaker, sound comes through a microphone in the form of alternating current. The strength of this current in turn affects the "recording head," a small electromagnet whose magnetic field extends over the section of tape being recorded. Loud sounds produce strong magnetic fields, and soft ones weak fields.
All of this information becomes embedded on the cassette tape through a process of magnetic alignment not so different from the process described earlier for creating a permanent magnet. But whereas the permanent magnetization of a natural magnet is difficult to reverse, reversal of a tape's magnetization—in other words, erasing the tape—is easy. An erase head, an electromagnet operating at a frequency too high for the human ear to hear, simply scrambles the magnetic particles on a piece of tape.
A CD, as one might expect, is much more closely related to a computer disk-drive than it is to earlier forms of recording technology. The disk drive receives electronic on-off signals from the computer, and translates these into magnetic codes that it records on the surface of a floppy disk. The disk drive itself includes two electric motors: a disk motor, which rotates the disk at a high speed, and a head motor, which moves the computer's read-write head across the disk. (It should be noted that most electric motors, including the universal motors used in a variety of household appliances, also use electromagnets.)
A third motor, called a stepper motor, ensures that the drive turns at a precise rate of speed. The stepper motor contains its own magnet, in this case a permanent one of cylindrical shape that sends signals to rows of metal teeth surrounding it, and these teeth act as gears to regulate the drive's speed. Likewise a CD player, which actually uses laser beams rather than magnetic fields to retrieve data from a disc, also has a drive system that regulates the speed at which the disk spins.
MAGLEV T RAINS : T HE F UTURE OF T RANSPORT ?
One promising application of electromagnetic technology relates to a form of transportation that might, at first glance, appear to be old news: trains. But MAGLEV, or magnetic levitation, trains are as far removed from the old steam engines of the Union Pacific as the space shuttle is from the Wright brothers' experimental airplane.
As discussed earlier, magnetic poles of like direction (i.e., north-north or south-south) repel one another such that, theoretically at least, it is possible to keep one magnet suspended in the air over another magnet. Actually it is impossible to produce these results with simple bar magnets, because their magnetic force is too small; but an electromagnet can create a magnetic field powerful enough that, if used properly, it exerts enough repulsive force to lift extremely heavy objects. Specifically, if one could activate train tracks with a strong electromagnetic field, it might be possible to "levitate" an entire train. This in turn would make possible a form of transport that could move large numbers of people in relative comfort, thus decreasing the environmental impact of automobiles, and do so at much higher speeds than a car could safely attain.
Actually the idea of MAGLEV trains goes back to a time when trains held complete supremacy over automobiles as a mode of transportation: specifically, 1907, when rocket pioneer Robert Goddard (1882-1945) wrote a story describing a vehicle that traveled by means of magnetic levitation. Just five years later, French engineer Emile Bachelet produced a working model for a MAGLEV train. But the amount of magnetic force required to lift such a vehicle made it impractical, and the idea fell to the wayside.
Then, in the 1960s, the advent of superconductivity—the use of extremely low temperatures, which facilitate the transfer of electrical current through a conducting material with virtually no resistance—made possible electromagnets of staggering force. Researchers began building MAGLEV prototypes using superconducting coils with strong currents to create a powerful magnetic field. The field in turn created a repulsive force capable of lifting a train several inches above a railroad track. Electrical current sent through guideway coils on the track allowed for enormous propulsive force, pushing trains forward at speeds up to and beyond 250 MPH (402 km/h).
Initially, researchers in the United States were optimistic about MAGLEV trains, but safety concerns led to the shelving of the idea for several decades. Meanwhile, other industrialized nations moved forward with MAGLEVs: in Japan, engineers built a 27-mi (43.5-km) experimental MAGLEV line, while German designers experimented with attractive (as opposed to repulsive) force in their Transrapid 07. MAGLEV trains gained a new defender in the United States with now-retired Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), who as chairman of a Senate subcommittee overseeing the interstate highway system introduced legislation to fund MAGLEV research. The 1998 transportation bill allocated $950 million toward the Magnetic Levitation Prototype Development Program. As part of this program, in January 2001 the U.S. Department of Transportation selected projects in Maryland and Pennsylvania as the two finalists in the competition to build the first MAGLEV train service in the United States. The goal is to have the service in place by approximately 2010.
WHERE TO LEARN MORE
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Molecular Expressions: Electricity and Magnetism: Interactive Java Tutorials (Web site). <http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/electromag/java/> (January 26, 2001).
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Wood, Robert W. Physics for Kids: 49 Easy Experiments with Electricity and Magnetism. New York: Tab, 1990.