Eddy Currents and Magnetic Damping
As discussed in Motional Emf, motional emf is induced when a conductor moves in a magnetic field or when a magnetic field moves relative to a conductor. If motional emf can cause a current loop in the conductor, we refer to that current as an eddy current. Eddy currents can produce significant drag, called magnetic damping, on the motion involved.
Consider the apparatus shown in this figure, which swings a pendulum bob between the poles of a strong magnet. (This is another favorite physics lab activity.) If the bob is metal, there is significant drag on the bob as it enters and leaves the field, quickly damping the motion. If, however, the bob is a slotted metal plate, as shown in this figure (b), there is a much smaller effect due to the magnet. There is no discernible effect on a bob made of an insulator. Why is there drag in both directions, and are there any uses for magnetic drag?
This figure shows what happens to the metal plate as it enters and leaves the magnetic field. In both cases, it experiences a force opposing its motion. As it enters from the left, flux increases, and so an eddy current is set up (Faraday’s law) in the counterclockwise direction (Lenz’s law), as shown. Only the right-hand side of the current loop is in the field, so that there is an unopposed force on it to the left (RHR-1).
When the metal plate is completely inside the field, there is no eddy current if the field is uniform, since the flux remains constant in this region. But when the plate leaves the field on the right, flux decreases, causing an eddy current in the clockwise direction that, again, experiences a force to the left, further slowing the motion. A similar analysis of what happens when the plate swings from the right toward the left shows that its motion is also damped when entering and leaving the field.
When a slotted metal plate enters the field, as shown in this figure, an emf is induced by the change in flux, but it is less effective because the slots limit the size of the current loops. Moreover, adjacent loops have currents in opposite directions, and their effects cancel. When an insulating material is used, the eddy current is extremely small, and so magnetic damping on insulators is negligible. If eddy currents are to be avoided in conductors, then they can be slotted or constructed of thin layers of conducting material separated by insulating sheets.