Here’s a fun science experiment for kids! Make an electromagnet out of a few simple supplies. This is a great way to explore not only electrical circuits, but also the connection between electricity and magnetism.
In this experiment, kids will take an ordinary nail and make it magnetic. This is a magnet that you can turn on and off, however! When the circuit is closed, the nail is a magnet. When the circuit is open, it loses its magnetic power.
This post was originally published in March 2012 and updated in March 2022.
Supplies Needed to Make an Electromagnet:
- A lantern battery, or two AA batteries. We’ll discuss the options below.
- A long piece of insulated copper wire
- Wires with alligator clips (ideal) or copper wire and electrical tape.
- A large iron nail
- Paper clips
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To make our electromagnet, I stripped a small amount of the plastic insulation off of the copper wire on both ends and then wrapped the wire around the nail. Then I needed to make a circuit with the ends of the wire attached to the terminals of the battery. Since we have wires with built-in alligator clips from our electricity set, we used those. The alligator clips make it so easy to connect and disconnect the wires.
You can easily order alligator clips on Amazon.
Before connecting all the wires, have kids try picking up paper clips with just the nail wrapped in wire. The nail will not pick up any clips!
Then connect the circuit. You need a wire running from one battery terminal to the end of the wire around the nail. Then you need another wire running from the opposite end of the nail’s wire to the other battery terminal. All connections must be secure.
Once your circuit is complete, you have an electromagnet! So awesome!
Your electromagnet will pick up paper clips, etc. Test its strength by making a chain of paper clips! (Although if you use large paper clips, it will probably only pick up one.)
Be aware that the ends of the wires will get hot! In scientific terms, this is resistance. All electrical conductors oppose the flow of electricity to some degree, and some of the electricity is lost as heat.
The lantern battery works REALLY well for this because it stands up by itself and because it has wires to attach the alligator clips to. However, it’s easy to make this project safer (especially important with young kids) by using two AA batteries. Create a battery pack like this to combine the voltage of the two AA batteries.
Make your battery pack by taping a paper clip to the ends of the batteries. Make sure that the batteries are facing in opposite directions! Then tape the batteries together.
You can use the battery pack by taping wires to the other ends of the batteries. One wire should touch each battery.
The electromagnet will work well with this setup! A little more fiddly, but safer, and the wires will not get hot.
The Science Behind an Electromagnet
How does an electromagnet work? Electrons in motion create a magnetic field. Materials are magnetic when their electrons are all spinning in the same direction. Natural or permanent magnets have their charges lined up in the same direction, while non-magnetic materials do not. However, we can make a metal such as iron magnetic by exposing it to an electrical charge. The electrons flowing through the coils of wire create a magnetic field, and so the nail behaves like a magnet! Remove the charge by disconnecting the circuit, and the nail no longer retains its magnetic properties.
Science is so cool!