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Electromagnets have several uses and practical applications. They can be found in various everyday electronics and are also used for industrial purposes ourselves. You can say that the electromagnet made much of the modern age possible harnessing electricity as a practical force in the same way that mankind used windmills and dams to harness wind and water. Here are some of the ways that electromagnets are used.
First, there are motors and generators. The discovery of the electromagnet made possible the invention of electric motors and generators. Both of these work on a scientific principle called electromagnetic induction. This phenomenon was discovered by the scientist Michael Faraday. Electromagnetic induction takes advantage of the fact that a moving electrical current creates a magnetic fields and a moving magnetic field creates an electrical current. This is essentially how electric motors and generators work. In any electrical appliance the motor is moved by the magnetic field produced by the electric current flowing from your socket to the appliance. A generator uses the opposite principle and an outside force normally wind, moving water, or steam, rotates a shaft which rotates a set of magnets around a coiled wire to create an electric current. This is how we get electric power.
Second, there are relays. Electromagnets are used to control the switches in relay. This is important especially when it comes to things like making a telephone call. The first telephones made use of a type of relay called a reed switch it not only helped to connect calls but performed the rudimentary logic and memory functions. This is also how the first computers functioned.
Third, there are practical industrial uses. Only materials made of iron, nickel, cobalt or their alloys or naturally occurring minerals respond to a magnetic field. This has many practical uses. One use is sorting out metals. Since the elements mentioned are used a lot in manufacturing, using an electromagnet is an efficient way to sort these metals out. Another use is in lifting of massive objects. You have probably seen cars in junk yard being lifted by a crane with a round plate at the end in movies or on television. The round plate at the end of the crane is also an electromagnet.
They are also used in transportation. Trains in Asia and Europe use electromagnets to levitate the cars. This helps them to move at phenomenal speeds.
There several other uses for electromagnets from security systems, to switches, and even propulsion systems for spacecraft. One new use that will be vital in new computing systems is solid state memory. Like the relay predecessors this new type of memory will rely on electromagnets
If you enjoyed this article there are several others on Universe Today that you will enjoy. There is a great article about the Cassini probe possible creating a second sun. There is also an interesting article about Ion Engines.
There are also great resources online. There is a great NASA web page that talks about the uses of electromagnets. The National High Magnetic Field laboratory website is another great resource.
You can also check out Astronomy Cast. Episode 103 is about electromagnetic forces.