Practical physics experiments on electromagnetism

Written by lee johnson Google
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Practical physics experiments on electromagnetism
Insulated wire and nails can be used to make an electrically-powered magnet. (Getty Thinkstock)

Electromagnetism is one of the four identified forces of nature, and it is one with a multitude of practical applications. Everything from the bulbs which illuminate your home to the computer you’re reading this on works because of electromagnetism, and it also places an integral role in the structure and behaviour of atoms. There are numerous experiments you can do at home to investigate the phenomenon and see how it can be used for several practical purposes.

Making an electromagnet

Electricity and magnetism are actually the same force, and this can be illustrated with the creation of an electromagnet. You need an iron nail, insulated copper wire, a D size battery and some paperclips (or other magnetic objects). By wrapping the wire in a coil around the nail and attaching the wire to the battery, the flow of electrons generates a magnetic field which can be used to lift several paperclips. Be careful, because the battery drains quite quickly and the wire can get quite hot. Attach the wires to the battery using electrical tape and remove it when you’ve finished. You can experiment with more tightly-coiled wire or varying levels of current to see if it affects the strength of the electromagnet (how many paperclips it can lift, for example).

Magnetically-powered car

The natural force generated by magnets can be used as energy for propulsion, and this can be demonstrated easily using a toy car and some bar magnets. Attach the magnet to the car with the north end at the front end and the south end at the back (you can do it the opposite way, if you like, just make sure you know which is which). Move the south end of another magnet up to the rear of the car and the repulsion between the two will send it hurtling forwards. Similarly, you can drag the car from in front using the south end of your bar magnet. This attracts the north end of car’s magnet and pulls it towards yours. See if the car moves faster as a result of repulsion or attraction, or if the speed is the same regardless of the method.

Homemade Van de Graaff generator

A Van de Graaff generator creates huge voltages, and you can make one with very straightforward materials. With some PVC pipe, a rubber band, a drink can, a fuse, a motor, electrical wire and some other basic items such as electrical tape (see Resources for full list) it’s fairly easy to make your own generator. You can use this to demonstrate lightning-like sparks of electricity, which can reach over a centimetre (half an inch) in length. Try to work out the voltage difference you’ve created from the length of the spark you can generate.

Electric motor

Electromagnetism can be used to power motors, and you can make your own electric motor using simple household items and a magnet. Coil some insulated copper wire up into a circle (wrapped around between 10 and 15 times), with the ends of the wire extending horizontally from either side. Attach two paperclips to the ends of an AA battery, and hang the coil of wire on the opposite sides, so that the horizontal portions of wire run parallel to the battery itself. Move this down towards a ferrite or neodymium magnet to activate the motor, setting the motor spinning rapidly.

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