Making Magneto!

Cardiff HQ has an intern! Parker McLean has come all the way from Canada to gain experience working in science communication. Here is his first blog for our website!

By Parker McLean

With the release of the new superhero smash, X-Men: Apocalypse, we mere mortals need to suit up and gather some powers of our own, using the handiest tool we have . . . SCIENCE!

X-Men: Apocalypse promotional image.

X-Men: Apocalypse promotional image.

Erik Lehnsherr A.K.A Magneto is a pivotal villain in the Marvel universe and is returning along side the most powerful villain yet: Apocalypse. Understanding the force that makes Erik Lehnsherr Magneto can expose clever schemes for his capture or even reveal a way to attain his power.

What can Magneto do?

 Magneto is known for his ability to create and manipulate magnetic fields. Magnetic fields normally exist in the space around magnets. If one magnet were to enter the magnetic field of another magnet, both magnets will feel a magnetic force between them. So how did Magneto manage to lift and relocate the Golden Gate Bridge in X-Men: The Last Stand? He must have generated a magnetic field around it!

Can WE Generate Magnetic Fields Like Magneto?

Well … not exactly. Even though we can’t use our minds to will magnetic fields into existence, we do know how to create magnetic fields by using a principle called induction. This describes the amazing, beautiful, o so useful relationship between electricity and magnetism. The law of induction illustrates that a changing magnetic field produces an electric field and a changing electric field produces a magnetic field. You might not realize it but, induction has held a great role in shaping how our modern world uses energy.

Wind turbines generating electricity from moving magnets. CC-BY Oast House Archive

Wind turbines generating electricity from moving magnets. CC-BY Oast House Archive

Within wind turbines and hydroelectric dams, magnets are moved about to generate the electricity that we so bountifully enjoy. Induction is also the central principle behind Electromagnets, which are devices that use a current of electricity to produce a strong magnetic field on command. The electromagnet creates a magnetic field only when an electric current flows through it. This is how non-mutant regular Joes are able to gain Magneto’s power to create magnetic fields: by using a current of electricity.

Using electricity, we can create magnetic fields to move things around. In fact, this is the basic principle behind the electric motor, which was invented in 1832! A motor converts electricity into motion by using induction. These motors are found in many of our household appliances such as fans and laundry machines. Who would’ve thought that Magneto would be so effective at washing our laundry?

Electromagnet used to move scrap. Image source: DK Find Out

Electromagnet used to move scrap. Image source: DK Find Out

These albeit revolutionary feats aren’t quite the same as lifting police cars on command. As well as being really effective at clearing a traffic jam, lifting large metal objects on demand would be a really handy ability to have. But, is it practical to make an electromagnet with such a power? Maybe not strong enough to lift cars (probably for good cause), electromagnets have been created to be handy tools at scrap yards. Here, electromagnetic cranes can lift piles of heavy scrap metal, on command! Just like Magneto! The electromagnet approaches the scrap then an electric current is turned on and the electromagnet suddenly creates a magnetic field that attracts all of the scrap metal to be lifted and moved!

What Materials Can Magneto Move?

It appears that we’ve had the knowledge of this great power to create magnetic (and electric) fields for almost two hundred years and now in the twenty first century it’s available to everyone! But hold on, before you go wrecking havoc on the X-MEN, only certain types of objects are affected by magnetic fields. This means Magneto can only move certain types of materials around.

A material that is affected by magnetic fields is called a ferromagnetic material. The most common ferromagnetic materials are iron, nickel and cobalt. In fact, the very core of the earth is made entirely of iron and nickel! When these materials are in a magnetic field, their atoms align to become small harmonizing magnets that together make one big magnet.

Magneto has been seen to to control Wolverine like his personal puppet, due to his Adamantium (a fictional metal) coated bones. The fact that Wolverine is helpless against Magneto’s induced magnetic fields suggests that Adamantium is a ferromagnetic material. And it appears that the writers at Marvel have done their homework, ensuring Adamantium is noted as being an iron based metal so that Magneto is able to puppeteer Wolverine with ease.

Not all objects and not even all metals are affected by magnetic fields. This means not even magneto can use his abilities to lift a single rubber band or play with his plastic dolls because they are not ferromagnetic! The United States army in X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: Days of Future Past utilized the fact that plastic is not ferromagnetic. They developed advanced plastic guns and bullets. This was a clever move given that Magneto has turned his enemies’ guns against them before. His inability to manipulate plastic bullets led to Magneto being wounded in the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Magneto confined in a plastic prison. CC-BY 2003 20th Century Fox

Magneto confined in a plastic prison. CC-BY 2003 20th Century Fox

If there is a way to imprison Magneto, it would need to be done with materials that are not ferromagnetic. A keen eye might have noticed that the government in the first X-MEN film confined Magneto in a plastic prison, far away from any ferromagnetic materials to ensure he could not use his powers to escape.

With the science of induction uncovered here, the X-MEN should be trembling in fear as we might now have millions of young scientists with the power of Magneto; even if they are just doing laundry and cleaning up scrap!

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