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Current: The Source of All Magnetism

Current: The Source of All Magnetism

An electromagnet creates magnetism with an electric current. In later sections we explore this more quantitatively, finding the strength and direction of magnetic fields created by various currents. But what about ferromagnets? This figure shows models of how electric currents create magnetism at the submicroscopic level. (Note that we cannot directly observe the paths of individual electrons about atoms, and so a model or visual image, consistent with all direct observations, is made. We can directly observe the electron’s orbital angular momentum, its spin momentum, and subsequent magnetic moments, all of which are explained with electric-current-creating subatomic magnetism.) Currents, including those associated with other submicroscopic particles like protons, allow us to explain ferromagnetism and all other magnetic effects. Ferromagnetism, for example, results from an internal cooperative alignment of electron spins, possible in some materials but not in others.

Crucial to the statement that electric current is the source of all magnetism is the fact that it is impossible to separate north and south magnetic poles. (This is far different from the case of positive and negative charges, which are easily separated.) A current loop always produces a magnetic dipole—that is, a magnetic field that acts like a north pole and south pole pair. Since isolated north and south magnetic poles, called magnetic monopoles, are not observed, currents are used to explain all magnetic effects. If magnetic monopoles did exist, then we would have to modify this underlying connection that all magnetism is due to electrical current. There is no known reason that magnetic monopoles should not exist—they are simply never observed—and so searches at the subnuclear level continue. If they do not exist, we would like to find out why not. If they do exist, we would like to see evidence of them.

Electric Currents and Magnetism

Electric current is the source of all magnetism.

PhET Explorations: Magnets and Electromagnets

Explore the interactions between a compass and bar magnet. Discover how you can use a battery and wire to make a magnet! Can you make it a stronger magnet? Can you make the magnetic field reverse?

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