Magnetic Materials

The term magnetism is derived from Magnesia, the name of a region in Asia Minor where lodestone, a naturally magnetic iron ore, was found in ancient times. Iron is not the only material that is easily magnetized when placed in a magnetic field; others include nickel and cobalt. Carbon steel was long the material commonly used for permanent magnets, but more recently other materials have been developed that are much more efficient as permanent magnets, including certain ferroceramics and Alnico, an alloy containing iron, aluminum, nickel, cobalt, and copper.

Materials that respond strongly to a magnetic field are called ferromagnetic [Lat. ferrum   =  iron]. The ability of a material to be magnetized or to strengthen the magnetic field in its vicinity is expressed by its magnetic permeability. Ferromagnetic materials have permeabilities of as much as 1,000 or more times that of free space (a vacuum). A number of materials are very weakly attracted by a magnetic field, having permeabilities slightly greater than that of free space; these materials are called paramagnetic. A few materials, such as bismuth and antimony, are repelled by a magnetic field, having permeabilities less than that of free space; these materials are called diamagnetic.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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