What Generates A Magnetic Field?

A magnetic field is a physical field that surrounds moving electric charges and magnetized materials. When electric charges are in motion, they generate magnetic fields perpendicular to their direction of motion. Magnetic fields are produced by the spin and orbital motion of electrons, by permanent magnets, electromagnets, and electrical currents. The Earth also produces its own magnetic field, which forms a magnetosphere and protects the planet.

This article will provide an overview of the various sources of magnetic fields, including moving charges, permanent magnets, electromagnets, and natural sources. We will explore how magnetic fields are produced, their properties and behaviors, everyday applications, health effects, and more. The goal is to gain a comprehensive understanding of where magnetic fields originate from and how they impact our lives.

Moving Electric Charges

One of the most common ways that magnetic fields are generated is through moving electric charges, such as electrons flowing through a wire. As electric charges move, they produce a magnetic field that flows perpendicular to the direction of the electric current. This phenomenon is described by Ampere’s law.

The direction of the magnetic field produced by a moving charge can be determined using Fleming’s right-hand rule. If you point the thumb of your right hand in the direction of the current flow, your fingers will curl in the direction of the magnetic field. So for example, if you have a wire with current flowing to the right, and you point your thumb to the right, your fingers will curl clockwise around the wire, indicating the direction of the magnetic field circulating clockwise around the wire.

The strength of the magnetic field is proportional to the amount of current – more current generates a stronger field. The magnetic field decreases in strength with greater distance from the electric current. Understanding how moving charges generate magnetic fields allows us to create electromagnets and other technologies that utilize magnetic fields.

Permanent Magnets

Permanent magnets are materials that produce their own persistent magnetic field. This means that the magnetic field is always present and does not disappear when the magnet is removed from a magnetic field source.

Permanent magnets are composed of materials with unique magnetic properties. Most permanent magnets consists of ferromagnetic materials like iron, nickel, cobalt and various alloys. These materials are made up of tiny regions called magnetic domains.

Within each magnetic domain, the magnetic fields of atoms are aligned in the same direction and collectively generate a magnetic field. However, the magnetic domains themselves are randomly oriented in the material. A permanent magnet is created when most of the magnetic domains are aligned in the same direction. This gives the material a net magnetic field that does not disappear.

The strength of a permanent magnet depends on the type of material as well as the degree of domain alignment. The highest grade permanent magnets are made from rare earth materials like neodymium and have very strong, aligned magnetic domains. This gives them powerful and persistent magnetic fields unmatched by common magnets.

magnetic fields are produced by the spin and orbital motion of electrons


An electromagnet is a type of magnet where the magnetic field is generated by an electric current. Unlike permanent magnets, the strength of an electromagnet can be rapidly changed by controlling the amount of electric current flowing through it.

The principle behind electromagnets is that when an electric current flows through a wire, it generates a magnetic field around the wire. This occurs because an electric current consists of moving electric charges, and whenever charged particles move, they produce a magnetic field.

The magnetic field strength generated by an electric current depends on the amount of current flowing. A larger electric current generates a stronger magnetic field. The magnetic field strength also depends on the number of wire loops – more wire loops concentrate the magnetic field.

By coiling wire into a compact solenoid shape, a strong focused magnetic field can be created inside the coil. This is how electromagnets are constructed. Common uses of electromagnets include lifting scrap metal, running electric motors and transformers, and powering magnetic levitation trains.

Earth’s Magnetic Field

Our planet Earth has a magnetic field that extends from its interior out into space. This geomagnetic field primarily originates from the Earth’s core, where convection of molten iron generates electric currents and a corresponding magnetic field. The circulating liquid iron within the outer core acts like a giant electromagnet, creating a dipolar magnetic field with north and south poles.

The Earth’s magnetic field reaches up to around 60,000 km from the surface. This region is known as the magnetosphere, and it helps shield the planet from charged particles emitted from the Sun. The solar wind, comprising ionized plasma from the Sun, deforms the magnetosphere on the side facing the Sun. Solar storms and fluctuations can intensify the solar wind, compressing the magnetic field on the Earth’s day side and stretching it into a long tail on the night side.

The magnetic north and south poles of Earth do not correspond exactly with its geographic poles and actually shift over time. Currently, magnetic north is located in northern Canada, while magnetic south is in the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica. Over centuries, the magnetic poles gradually drift due to changes in the convection currents in the outer core. Every few hundred thousand years, the magnetic field actually flips orientation, with north and south poles switching places.


Earth’s magnetosphere is the region of space surrounding our planet where its magnetic field dominates over the solar wind from the Sun. It extends for tens of thousands of kilometers into space and acts like a protective shield around Earth. Charged particles streaming from the Sun in the solar wind would otherwise strip away our atmosphere. But the magnetosphere deflects most of these particles before they can reach Earth’s surface.

The magnetosphere is formed by Earth’s magnetic field. As the solar wind meets the magnetic field, the field lines are pushed back by the solar wind particles until they reach an equilibrium point. Here, the pressure of the solar wind is balanced by the magnetic field pressure, forming a boundary called the magnetopause. Beyond this lies the magnetotail, where the field lines are dragged backwards into a long tail by the solar wind.

Within the magnetosphere, charged particles are trapped in two donut-shaped belts called the Van Allen radiation belts. They pose a hazard to satellites and astronauts passing through them. The inner belt consists mainly of high energy protons, while the outer belt contains high energy electrons. The flux and intensity of particles in the belts can vary greatly depending on solar activity.

During geomagnetic storms when the solar wind pressure increases, the structure of the magnetosphere can change dramatically. The magnetopause gets pushed closer to Earth as the magnetic field becomes compressed. These storms allow more solar particles into near-Earth space, causing beautiful auroras but also potential damage to satellites and power grids on the ground. The magnetosphere is vital for shielding Earth’s surface from the energetic particles and radiation of space.

Magnetic Fields in Nature

Magnetism is found abundantly in nature. Some examples of natural magnets include:


Lodestones are naturally magnetized pieces of the mineral magnetite. They are the most ancient types of permanent magnets, and were the first magnets ever discovered. Lodestones were used in compasses in ancient times to indicate direction by aligning with Earth’s magnetic field.

Magnetotactic Bacteria

Many species of bacteria contain chains of magnetic particles called magnetosomes, which cause them to be magnetic. These bacteria use their internal miniature compasses to align themselves with Earth’s magnetic field lines as they swim, helping them more efficiently navigate towards favorable conditions.

Other organisms believed to contain magnetic particles for orientation and navigation include birds, bees, and some types of algae.

Magnetized Rocks

Certain strongly magnetic rocks, including basalt and granite, contain deposits of minerals rich in iron, nickel, or cobalt. These can become magnetized over time through processes like heating and cooling in Earth’s changing magnetic field.

Ancient magnetic rocks provide a historical record of the planet’s magnetic field going back billions of years.

Everyday Applications

Magnets and magnetic fields have many useful applications in our everyday lives. Here are some key examples:

Healthcare: MRI machines use powerful magnets to generate detailed images of the human body, allowing doctors to diagnose conditions and injuries. Magnets are also used in compass readers that help guide catheter insertion during surgical procedures.

Transportation: Maglev (magnetic levitation) trains use magnets to levitate and propel the train, reaching speeds over 350 mph. Electric motors in hybrid and electric cars rely on magnetic fields to convert electricity into motion.

Electronics: Hard drives, speakers, microphones, and other electronics use magnets for data storage, audio output, and more. MRI machines, maglev trains, and electric motors also contain many electronics relying on magnetic components.

Renewable energy: Wind turbines and hydroelectric generators convert kinetic energy into electricity using electromagnetic induction from rotating magnetic fields.

Consumer products: Refrigerator magnets, magnetic clips, levitation devices, and more take advantage of permanent magnets in daily life. Magnetic stripes store data on credit cards and ID cards.

Research tools: Mass spectrometers use magnetic fields to identify chemicals. Particle accelerators steer charged particles with magnets to study subatomic particles.

In summary, magnetic fields enable amazing technologies we depend on for transportation, medicine, energy, consumer products, scientific research, and more in the modern world. Their unique properties continue finding new applications and use cases.

Health Effects

While research on the potential health effects of magnetic fields is still ongoing, some studies have raised concerns. Prolonged exposure to strong magnetic fields has the potential to cause biological changes and disruption in our bodies. However, the impact of everyday exposure to low levels of magnetic fields is still debated.

Some researchers claim long-term exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and radio frequencies (RFs) from sources like power lines, appliances, cell phones and wifi can increase risks for certain cancers and neurodegenerative diseases. However, other studies have found no conclusive links between EMF/RF exposure and health problems.

EMFs and RFs interact with the human body on a cellular level, which may potentially alter chemical reactions or heat tissue. But our bodies also have natural defenses to adapt to environmental exposures. The science is still conflicted on what constitutes dangerous levels of exposure for humans.

Children may be more susceptible to harm from magnetic fields since their bodies and nervous systems are still developing. While the health risks are still unclear, precautions like keeping distances from power lines or appliances may be warranted for vulnerable populations.

In conclusion, while concerns have arisen around EMFs and human health, there is no scientific consensus yet on the real impacts at common environmental exposure levels. More research is still needed to understand any potential risks magnetic fields may pose to human health.


In summary, magnetic fields are created by moving electric charges. Permanent magnets have aligned magnetic domains that create persistent magnetic fields. Electromagnets use electric current through a wire to generate temporary magnetic fields. The Earth itself acts like a giant magnet, with its magnetic field originating from the spinning molten iron outer core. This planetary magnetic field forms a magnetosphere that protects the Earth from solar wind. Beyond artificial and planetary sources, magnetic fields permeate the universe and are evident around stars, galaxies, and cosmic matter. Understanding and harnessing magnetic fields has led to many everyday applications and technologies like motors, data storage, MRIs, and more. The potential impacts of magnetic fields on human health remain an active area of research. As our knowledge progresses, magnetic fields will likely continue providing insights into areas like astronomical observations, energy generation, medical imaging, and information technologies.

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