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What Factors Affect the Strength of an Electromagnet?

Summary

Grade Range
6th-8th
Group Size
3-4 students
Active Time
60 minutes
Total Time
60 minutes
Key Concepts
Electricity, Magnetism, Electromagnetism, Forces
Credits
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies
Paperclips are attracted to an electromagnet made from wires and a nail

Overview

Making an electromagnet from a battery, nail, and wire is a classic science demonstration. But instead of just demonstrating this for your students, let them explore it themselves! In this lesson they will discover how different variables affect the strength of an electromagnet.

Learning Objectives

NGSS Alignment

This lesson helps students prepare for these Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations:
This lesson focuses on these aspects of NGSS Three Dimensional Learning:

Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Science & Engineering Practices Planning and Carrying Out Investigations. Plan and conduct an investigation individually and collaboratively, and in the design: identify independent and dependent variables and controls, what tools are needed to do the gathering, how measurements will be recorded, and how many data are needed to support a claim.
Disciplinary Core Ideas PS2.B: Types of Interactions. Electric and magnetic (electromagnetic) forces can be attractive or repulsive, and their sizes depend on the magnitudes of the charges, currents, or magnetic strengths involved and on the distances between the interacting objects.
Crosscutting Concepts Cause and Effect. Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems.

Materials

Materials


Materials used to create an electromagnet

Materials used to create an electromagnet include: a straw, a wooden pencil, metal nails of various sizes, alligator clips, paper clips, sandpaper, a spool of copper wire, tape, a D cell battery, a battery holder and scissors. These items can be used test the strength of the electromagnet based on how many paperclips it can lift.

For each group of students:

For classroom demonstration (optional):

Background Information for Teachers

This section contains a quick review for teachers of the science and concepts covered in this lesson.

Watch this video for an introduction to magnetism and electromagnetism:

Magnetism and Electromagnetism Tutorial
A brief introductory video to magnets and electromagnets. Continue reading for more details.

The second half of the video demonstrates how electrical current creates a magnetic field. Electrical current flows through a wire connected between the two terminals of a battery. However, the magnetic field around a single, straight piece of wire is fairly weak. You can make the magnetic field much stronger by wrapping the wire into a coil, also called a solenoid. As long as each turn of the coil goes in the same direction, the magnetic fields around each turn will add up, resulting in a stronger field. This is important; if two turns go in opposite directions, their fields will cancel out instead of adding up!

You can make the field even stronger by wrapping the wire around a ferromagnetic core, like a nail. A solenoid with a ferromagnetic core is commonly called an electromagnet. Unlike a permanent magnet, an electromagnet can be turned on and off using electrical current.

Many variables affect the strength of this electromagnet, and there are some variables that do not affect the strength. While the underlying physics are more advanced (see Additional Background section), middle school students can still do an experiment to identify the relationships between these variables and the strength of the electromagnet. Table 1 provides a summary of some variables and how they do or do not affect the strength of the magnet, but this list is not exhaustive.

Variable Relationship
Number of times you wrap the wire around the core (referred to as "number of turns in coil") More turns make the magnet stronger.
Amount of current flowing through wire More current makes the magnet stronger. The amount of current can be increased by using multiple batteries or thicker wire (see variations—you will need to purchase additional materials to test this).
Core material Ferromagnetic materials (iron, steel) make the magnet much stronger than non-ferromagnetic materials like paper, wood, or air.
Width of the nail A wider nail will make the magnet stronger.
Length of the nail Making the nail longer will not make the magnet stronger, unless you also add more turns to the coil.
Spacing of turns in coil Tightly-spaced coils will make the magnet stronger
Surface coating of nail Nails have different surface coatings (shiny, dull, smooth, rough, etc.), but this generally does not affect the strength of the magnet.
Location of coil on nail (in the middle vs. toward the end) Assuming the coil does not take up the entire length of the nail, the magnet will be stronger if you place the coil near one end, and use that end to lift the paper clips.
Table 1. Some variables that affect (or do not affect) the strength of an electromagnet.

Figure 1 shows example data collected for the number of paper clips the magnet could lift vs. the number of turns in the coil (averages for three trials). Based on these data, adding more turns of wire makes the magnet stronger because it can lift more paper clips.

Example graph plots the number of paperclips lifted by an electromagnet based on the number of wire wraps
Figure 1. Example data.

Prep Work (5 minutes)

Engage (5 minutes)

Explore (40 minutes)

Reflect (10 minutes)

Assess

Make Career Connections

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