When making an electromagnet, why does a hard core stay permanently magnetized while a soft core does not? — CD, Houston, TX
Iron and steel are intrinsically magnetic materials, meaning that at the atomic scale they exhibit magnetic order and have magnetic poles present. Most materials, including copper and aluminum, have no such magnetic order—they are nonmagnetic all the way to the atomic scale. But while it is composed of magnetic atoms, a large piece of iron or steel normally doesn’t appear magnetic. That’s because a large piece of iron or steel contains many tiny magnetic domains. Although each of these magnetic domains is highly magnetic, with a north pole at one end and a south pole at the other end, the metal appears nonmagnetic at first because these domains point equally in all directions and their magnetizations cancel one another. Before the magnetic character of a piece of iron or steel will become visible, something must align its magnetic domains.
In an electromagnet, an iron or steel core is surrounded by a coil of wire. When you run current through that coil of wire, the magnetic field of the current causes the core’s magnetic domains to change sizes—the domains that are aligned with the field grow at the expense of the domains misaligned with the field and the whole piece of iron or steel becomes highly magnetic. When you stop current from flowing through the coil of wire, the domains may return to their original sizes and shapes and the iron or steel may become nonmagnetic again.
The abilities for magnetic domains to change sizes depends on the chemical and physical properties of the metal, particularly its crystalline structure. In some magnetic materials, the domains change size extremely easily. These materials are considered to be “soft”—they magnetize easily in the presence of a magnetic field and demagnetize easily when that field is removed. Most electromagnets are made from such soft magnetic materials because it takes only a small current in a wire coil to magnetize the electromagnet’s soft core and that core quickly becomes nonmagnetic when you stop the current from flowing.
But in other magnetic materials, the domains don’t change size easily. These materials are considered to be “hard”—they are both difficult to magnetize and difficult to demagnetize. You must put lots of current through the coil of wire around a hard magnetic material in order to magnetize that material. But once you turn off the current, the material will retain its magnetization and it will be a permanent magnet.