Fun Things to Do With Magnets: Cool Experiments and Tricks
I've always been captivated by the magic of magnetism. Why do strong magnets have such an attractive force? Why are certain elements magnetic, and others are not? And ever since the extra strong neodymium magnets have started appearing on the market, the fun has gotten even better!
They're certainly a lot of fun to play with, but a set of neodymium magnets can leave you scratching your head. What can you do with them, other than stick things to your refrigerator?
The truth is that magnets have a huge application in our daily lives. Much of our technology depends upon them. For the insatiably curious or the future scientist, figuring out some fun things to do with magnets can be very rewarding.
This article is meant to suggest a few cool things you can do with magnets. We'll be looking at a few of my favorite experiments, tricks, and other fun stuff you can try. Hopefully they'll make magnetism as fascinating to you as it is to me. Let's get started!
1. Investigate the Magnetic Content of Food
There is a lot of iron in our food. It's an essential element to our diet and health, and if we don't get it we suffer serious health effects, such as anemia.
However, it's still iron, and that means it's still magnetic! Most foods have such a negligible amount of iron that a magnet won't affect it. However, some foods are 'iron enriched,' meaning they have been augmented for health reasons.
Many breakfast cereals have an augmented amount of iron, and that makes them the perfect food for this experiment.
- First, get a strong, neodymium magnet.
- Then, take a breakfast cereal that has a large percentage of your recommended iron intake. Bran Flakes are a good choice.
- Put the cereal in a bowl and smash it up until it's a fine mixture. (You can add water, like in the video above, or you can just crush it until it's really fine.)
- Then, use your strong neodymium magnet and try to isolate the iron from the cereal.
- If you do it right, you'll see little black specks of iron appear on the magnet! Amazing, right?
If your magnet is strong enough, it might even attract the cereal flakes themselves without smashing them up.
This may seem like nothing more than a fun little experiment with strong magnets, but it's actually a small scale example of a widely used industrial and scientific process. Various materials react to magnetism in different ways. A strong magnetic force is a great way to separate various metallic elements from one another.
2. Create a Magnetic Structure
A great and simple activity to do with magnets is seeing how their force will defy gravity. This is seriously so much fun.
If they're strong enough, you can create a 'sculpture' of magnetic materials that can extend outward in impossible ways.
- You'll want to get a strong magnet, probably neodymium (you can find a very strong magnet inside most computer hard drives, so if you have an old one kicking around that's a good source).
- Then, start attaching different ferrous or metal items to the sculpture. It's good to start on a refrigerator or baking pan, something that will hold the neodymium magnet in place.
- Then, start attaching different items and see how big you can make the structure before it falls!
3. Create a Magnetic (Homopolar) Motor
Want to learn how a basic electric motor operates? You can actually create a miniature electric motor model with nothing more than a bit of copper wire, a 9V battery, and a standard screw (a wood screw should work fine).
- Make sure the copper wire has a protective sheath on it. Strip each end of the wire so the copper is exposed.
- Stick the disc neodymium magnet on the head of the screw. Place the tip of the screw against the 'button' of the battery (you can place it on either side, really, but the button is an easier location to use).
- Then, press one end of the exposed copper wire to the other end of the battery. Hold it there with your finger (you won't get shocked, don't worry).
- Holding the plastic housing, hold the other exposed end of the copper wire to the side of the disc shaped neodymium magnet. It will start spinning extremely quickly!
- You can get really creative here, with lots of different configurations. Here's a fun video with some ideas.
So What's Happening?
By attaching the wires, you're completing an electric circuit that passes through the screw, through the magnet, and through the wire.
Magnetic fields affect the flow of electricity. In the instance of a homopolar motor, the flow of electricity occurs in a radial motion, perpendicular to the axis of rotation. So, the flow of electricity is essentially what causes the screw to spin at such a high velocity. If you didn't have the magnet there, the electricity would simply flow through the screw and complete the circuit with no visible effect.
4. Create a Mini Magnetic Field
This is a really cool thing to do with your magnets because it's simple and captivating, and it doesn't require a huge investment. In fact, you should be able to gather everything for just a few bucks at your hardware store.
- The concept is simple: take a round neodymium magnet, such as you'll find in magnetic ball bearing sets, and you get a length of copper piping that has a diameter just a little bit bigger than the round magnet you want to use.
- You hold the copper piping vertically, and then drop the magnetic ball down through the pipe. You'd expect it to drop like, well, a ball bearing, but it doesn't! It floats!
Even though copper is not inherently magnetic, and the magnet won't stick to it, by passing by the metal it creates a miniature magnetic field. That means that the ball bearing should slowly float down the tube!
You can try this out with aluminum tubing as well. It's a fun activity to do with magnets that demonstrates a magnetic field, and it's fascinating to watch it defy gravity as it slowly falls downward.
5. Fun With Ferrofluids
Have you ever heard of ferrofluids before? They're essentially liquids that react strongly to a magnetic force, and if you have ferrofluids and a magnet, it's one of the coolest things you can mess around with!
Any ferrofluid experiments should be done with adult supervision, since many of the substances are toxic and shouldn't be handled without gloves on.
Most of the time the liquid is a mixture of ferrous materials (think iron particles) and some sort of oil solution. There's soap added to keep the iron from clumping and make sure the mixture is uniform.
- Simply pour the liquid into a flat bottomed glass dish. The thinner the glass the better (I recommend a petri dish). Try to make sure the liquid is as thinly spread out as possible.
- Once it's in place, use a strong magnet on the underside of the glass container. You'll see amazing patterns occur in the ferrofluids. I recommend having a camera on hand!
- Try using more than one magnet and you'll create some incredible geometric shapes. It's absolutely fascinating, and a must try.
6. The Floating Paper Clip
This one's a really good one, and it's one that kids just love!
- Take a paperclip, and attach a bit of thread to it. Dental floss works too, or light string.
- Attach the other end of the thread to a fixed point somewhere. Then, take a strong magnet and hold it somewhere above the paper clip. It will jump up and try to make contact with the magnet, but of course the string will keep it from reaching all the way.
- The paper clip will then 'hover' in the air, unable to fall to the ground due to gravity, but unable to reach the magnetic attractor due to the string.
- You can then pull the string around, or 'twang' it to see how it affects things. It's fun for kids to see how far away the paper clip must be before it's overwhelmed by gravity and falls.
- Also, try placing different objects between the clip and the magnet. See what disrupts the magnetic effect, and what doesn't.
This is one of my favorites because it literally costs pennies to do. If you want to get extra creative, glue a little paper kite around the clip!
This is a great, strong magnet for experiments
Other Stuff to Think About
Not for very young kids: I don't recommend strong magnets for children under the age of 4 at the very least. They probably won't have the patience for it anyway, and most magnets are small and should be considered a choking hazard.
Keep your electronics safe: I'd also recommend that you do any of these experiments far away from electronic devices. You can wipe or damage the hard drive of a computer if you have a strong magnet in close proximity, so be careful.
Get messy: I'd encourage you to play, have fun, and make a mess. Whether you're a child or an adult there are so many cool things to do with a magnet. It's fun to see the forces that make up our universe on such a small scale.
Thanks for reading!