As the internal combustion engine (ICE) slowly gives way to electric motors, more people are starting to pay attention to the seemingly mysterious ways of magnets. While your current ICE-powered vehicle does contain a number of systems driven by electromagnets to make electricity, a great change is under way. Electricity, magnets and electromagnets are moving from the back seat to under the hood and replacing the piston and cylinder as a form of propulsion. It all hinges on batteries that must become more robust but as you will see below, that technology is finally catching up.
Traditionally in the automotive world, loops of copper wire wrapped around an iron core are used to generate electricity. This concept can be found today in items like alternators and stator/rotor combinations. These mechanical workings play a key role in the alternating and direct current forms of electricity that most of us know as “AC” or “DC.” The workings of electromagnets are along these lines and more common than you might think. Since it’s possible to turn the magnetic fields off and on — as opposed to the permanent magnet that’s stuck to your refrigerator doo — there have been many practical applications of these systems. A few examples include speakers, MRI machines, electric buzzers, generators, locks and more.
For the purpose of this article, given the popularity of modern cars, we’d like to shift focus to electric vehicles. Electromagnets play a pivotal role there, as the magnetic field can be used to rotate a shaft. This concept can be more easily explained via the rules of attraction and repulsion – which is what you feel when trying to touch the north and south poles of two magnets. In an electric car, this “push” can be designed so that it creates propulsion via an axle and thus moves the vehicle.
This all depends on a power source and if modern manufacturers are looking to take gasoline and on-board electrical generation out of the equation, these vehicles need a long-lasting internal battery. Unfortunately, the technology and charging infrastructure required for long-distance travel isn’t yet established. This has limited annual advances to make electric vehicles increasingly mainstream. According to a Sept. 23 article from Wired magazine, the “million-mile battery” may soon be on the way. Designs of this new battery employ “lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide, or NMC, for the battery’s positive electrode (cathode) and artificial graphite for its negative electrode (anode).” Once these types of batteries become common-place, the true perks of electromagnets as a power source – and a way to rotate an axle with wheels on each end — will begin to truly shine.