When we think of magnets, most of us think of the decorative ones that adorn our refrigerators.
But did you know that magnets have so many other uses as well, especially since they can be affected by electricity?
Magnets are used a lot in the electronics industry, including in TVs, speakers, stereos, and computers.
They’re also used in the medical field to see inside the human body during magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs).
Magnets also have uses in the industrial industry, as they can be used to separate metal components from non-metal components.
With so many uses, it leads us to wonder if magnets are eco-friendly, including the manufacturing of them.
Magnets are generally not eco-friendly because they are made from non-renewable resources, and those materials have to undergo heavy manufacturing processes to turn them into magnets.
In this article you’ll learn more about why magnets are not eco-friendly and if there is any aspect of them that is.
1. What Are Magnets Made Of?
Magnets are made out of various metals called ferromagnetic metals.
Being ferromagnetic means that a particular metal is highly susceptible to being magnetized, but how magnetic the metal is just depends on the strength of the magnetic field that is being applied.
Examples of ferromagnetic metals include cobalt, iron, and nickel. Magnets can be made out of one or more of those metals and they are known as permanent magnets.
There are other magnets known as temporary magnets that can be made out of metals such as steel. Steel doesn’t have strong magnetic properties but can become magnetized in the presence of a permanent magnet.
That’s how steel materials can be picked up during industrial processes and can attract other metal objects to them as well.
But once the permanent magnet is removed, temporary magnets lose their magnetic properties.
Electromagnets have a core made out of ferromagnetic materials surrounded by a coiled wire made of a conducting metal. This creates a magnetic field when electricity is passed through it.
Electromagnets are the type of magnet used in electronics and the magnetic field can be turned on and off via a switch.
2. Are Magnets Found Naturally in the Earth?
Some magnets can be found naturally in Earth, but these are formed from the stone known as magnetite (aka lodestone). Magnetite is the most magnetic of all the naturally occurring minerals.
Magnetite is magnetic because it contains iron in its composition and the iron interacts with the Earth’s natural magnetic field.
But although magnetite is used to make steel, it is not the most commonly used material to make the magnets that are used in various industries.
Materials such as iron, cobalt, and nickel are also found naturally in the Earth. While they are magnetic, they aren’t necessarily magnets themselves.
Rather, those metals have to be magnetized uniformly to work, which is done through various manufacturing processes.
3. Are Magnets Man-Made?
Most magnets that are used in industrial settings are man-made because as previously mentioned, they have to be magnetized uniformly to work the way they’re supposed to.
The process of making magnets can be quite complicated, but essentially, ferromagnetic metals that are extracted from the Earth’s crust are pulverized, which turns them into powder.
The powder is then compacted and heated which causes them to densify and become a hard solid. This process is known as powder metallurgy.
Once the magnet has densified, it has to be ground down to remove any rough edges, giving it a smooth surface and a specific shape.
The magnet then has to be magnetized which is done by exposing it to a magnetic field using an electric current.
Magnetization is uniform because the electric current causes the electrons inside the metal to line up, a process called polarization.
But how the electrons line up just depends on the shape of the magnet itself, which is why U-shaped and bar magnets each have a positive and negative end, but round magnets have one side that is positive and the other that is negative.
4. Are Magnets Bad for the Environment?
Magnets aren’t necessarily bad for the environment once they are created, but the process of creating them is bad for the environment.
To get the metals used to make magnets in the first place, they have to be extracted from the Earth which is usually done by mining.
Mining causes its fair share of environmental problems, including:
- Soil contamination and alteration
- Water contamination
When a large rock containing mineral ores is found, it then has to be extracted which involves the use of heavy machinery, then it is crushed into smaller pieces, again by the use of heavy machinery.
The usable and valuable metal material then has to be separated from the rest of the ore by either the use of smelting or electrolysis, both of which require large amounts of energy.
Creating the magnet itself also uses large amounts of energy due to all of the mechanical processes used to form the magnet and magnetize it.
Most of the energy used in all aspects of creating magnets largely comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which are non-renewable resources.
Burning fossil fuels also contributes to a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions, a leading cause of climate change.
5. Are Magnets Renewable?
Another reason that magnets are bad for the environment is that the metals used to make them are essentially non-renewable resources.
Yes, new metal ores can be formed, but this process can take millions of years because they are formed from natural processes such as volcanic eruptions and erosion, as well as falling to Earth in the form of meteorites among other methods.
If all of the ore is extracted before new ore can form, there won’t be any left to make new magnets out of so magnets can’t be considered renewable.
6. Are Magnets Sustainable?
Even though permanent magnets will stay magnetized for an indefinite amount of time, magnets are not sustainable for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is that they are made from non-renewable resources using methods that aren’t eco-friendly in neither the extraction of the ores nor the creation of the magnets themselves.
The second reason is that non-renewable energy sources are used to power the manufacturing equipment used to make them, so the manufacturing of magnets is not eco-friendly either.
7. Are Magnets Biodegradable?
Even though magnets are made out of natural resources, they are not biodegradable.
This is because the materials they are made out of can’t be broken down by bacteria and other organisms and it is difficult for weathering and other natural phenomena to break them down into smaller pieces due to how dense they are.
Magnets can take hundreds of years to even be broken down into smaller pieces, and the materials won’t return to their natural state even if the magnet does break down.
8. Are Magnets Toxic?
Magnets aren’t necessarily toxic, but they do pose some risk of harm to humans.
Magnetic fields above a certain strength (3000 Gauss) are thought to be potentially harmful to the human body.
However, research has provided insufficient data to prove how harmful they are, while some tests have shown the impact of magnets on the human body to be about 1/5 the impact that a TV has on the body.
The biggest risk to humans, particularly children, could happen if the magnet is accidentally ingested. This can pose a choking hazard as well as perforation of internal organs, both of which can be life-threatening.
Playing with magnets also has the potential to cause injury through pinching the skin, depending on how strong the force between the two magnets is.
8. Are Magnets Durable?
How durable a magnet is depends on what it is made of and what size it is.
It can also depend on how it was made because remember that a lot of magnets are made by heating compacted powder to make it denser.
Even though magnets are hard on the outside, some of them are more easily broken than others since they are still essentially made up of powder.
For example, neodymium magnets have a very strong magnetic field. However, they can break easily if they are slammed together due to the strength of the magnetic field as well as being relatively brittle.
It is entirely possible to break a magnet just by hitting it with a hammer.
9. Can Magnets Be Recycled?
Although it may be possible to recycle magnets, they generally aren’t recyclable yet due to the technical and financial aspects of recycling.
Some magnets are made of a combination of metals and it would be expensive, time-consuming, and inefficient to break them down to create new magnets out of them.
Plus, it’s very possible that they wouldn’t retain their strength if they were recycled.
10. How to Dispose of Magnets Properly
Since magnets aren’t recyclable or biodegradable, the only way to dispose of them is to throw them away. This is the ideal disposal method for kitchen magnets and other small magnets.
However, large or strong magnets may need to be disposed of in a certain way by demagnetizing them to prevent them from attracting other magnetic materials in the landfill.
With that being said, you can also dispose of magnets by taking them to the scrap yard. You won’t get much money for them, but they can either use them or dispose of them for you.
Even though magnets are made from naturally occurring materials, they are not eco-friendly.
They are made from non-renewable resources and require a lot of energy to create them, plus they can’t be disposed of in an eco-friendly way.
Because they are so widely used and so necessary for many different industries, research is being conducted about how to make magnets in a way that is better for the environment or even make them recyclable while still retaining their strength and properties.
But it appears that it may still be awhile before any advancements can be made to make magnets more eco-friendly.