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How Electric Motors Work
by Marshall Brain

Electric motors are everywhere! In your house, almost every mechanical movement that you see around you is caused by an AC or DC electric motor. By understanding how a motor works you can learn a lot about magnets, electromagnets and electricity in general. In this edition of HowStuffWorks you will learn what makes electric motors tick.

To take a tour inside an actual electric motor, click here!

Motors Everywhere!
Look around your house and you will find that it is filled with electric motors. Here's an interesting experiment for you to try: Walk through your house and count all the motors you find. Starting in the kitchen, there are motors in:
  • The fan over the stove and in the microwave oven
  • The dispose-all under the sink
  • The blender
  • The can opener
  • The refrigerator - Two or three in fact: one for the compressor, one for the fan inside the refrigerator, as well as one in the icemaker
  • The mixer
  • The tape player in the answering machine
  • Probably even the clock on the oven
In the utility room, there is an electric motor in: Even in the bathroom there's a motor in: Your car is loaded with electric motors: Plus, there are motors in all sorts of other places:
  • Several in the VCR
  • Several in a CD player or tape deck
  • Many in a computer (each disk drive has two or three, plus there's a fan or two)
  • Most toys that move have at least one motor (including Tickle-me-Elmo for its vibrations)
  • Electric clocks
  • The garage door opener
  • Aquarium pumps
In walking around my house, I counted over 50 electric motors hidden in all sorts of devices. Everything that moves uses an electric motor to accomplish its movement.

Parts of an Electric Motor
Let's start by looking at the overall plan of a simple two-pole DC electric motor. A simple motor has six parts, as shown in the diagram below:

  • Armature or rotor
  • Commutator
  • Brushes
  • Axle
  • Field magnet
  • DC power supply of some sort

Parts of an electric motor

An electric motor is all about magnets and magnetism: A motor uses magnets to create motion. If you have ever played with magnets you know about the fundamental law of all magnets: Opposites attract and likes repel. So if you have two bar magnets with their ends marked "north" and "south," then the north end of one magnet will attract the south end of the other. On the other hand, the north end of one magnet will repel the north end of the other (and similarly, south will repel south). Inside an electric motor, these attracting and repelling forces create rotational motion.

In the diagram you can see two magnets in the motor: The armature (or rotor) is an electromagnet, while the field magnet is a permanent magnet (the field magnet could be an electromagnet as well, but in most small motors it isn't in order to save power).

Electromagnets and Motors
To understand how an electric motor works, the key is to understand how the electromagnet works. (See How Electromagnets Work for complete details.)

An electromagnet is the basis of an electric motor. You can understand how things work in the motor by imagining the following scenario. Say that you created a simple electromagnet by wrapping 100 loops of wire around a nail and connecting it to a battery. The nail would become a magnet and have a north and south pole while the battery is connected.

Now say that you take your nail electromagnet, run an axle through the middle of it and suspend it in the middle of a horseshoe magnet as shown in the figure below. If you were to attach a battery to the electromagnet so that the north end of the nail appeared as shown, the basic law of magnetism tells you what would happen: The north end of the electromagnet would be repelled from the north end of the horseshoe magnet and attracted to the south end of the horseshoe magnet. The south end of the electromagnet would be repelled in a similar way. The nail would move about half a turn and then stop in the position shown.

Electromagnet in a horseshoe magnet

You can see that this half-turn of motion is simply due to the way magnets naturally attract and repel one another. The key to an electric motor is to then go one step further so that, at the moment that this half-turn of motion completes, the field of the electromagnet flips. The flip causes the electromagnet to complete another half-turn of motion. You flip the magnetic field just by changing the direction of the electrons flowing in the wire (you do that by flipping the battery over). If the field of the electromagnet were flipped at precisely the right moment at the end of each half-turn of motion, the electric motor would spin freely.

The armature takes the place of the nail in an electric motor. The armature is an electromagnet made by coiling thin wire around two or more poles of a metal core.

The armature has an axle, and the commutator is attached to the axle. In the diagram to the right, you can see three different views of the same armature: front, side and end-on. In the end-on view, the winding is eliminated to make the commutator more obvious. You can see that the commutator is simply a pair of plates attached to the axle. These plates provide the two connections for the coil of the electromagnet.

Brushes and commutator
The "flipping the electric field" part of an electric motor is accomplished by two parts: the commutator and the brushes.

The diagram at the right shows how the commutator and brushes work together to let current flow to the electromagnet, and also to flip the direction that the electrons are flowing at just the right moment. The contacts of the commutator are attached to the axle of the electromagnet, so they spin with the magnet. The brushes are just two pieces of springy metal or carbon that make contact with the contacts of the commutator.

Putting It All Together
When you put all of these parts together, what you have is a complete electric motor:


In this figure, the armature winding has been left out so that it is easier to see the commutator in action. The key thing to notice is that as the armature passes through the horizontal position, the poles of the electromagnet flip. Because of the flip, the north pole of the electromagnet is always above the axle so it can repel the field magnet's north pole and attract the field magnet's south pole.

If you ever have the chance to take apart a small electric motor, you will find that it contains the same pieces described above: two small permanent magnets, a commutator, two brushes, and an electromagnet made by winding wire around a piece of metal. Almost always, however, the rotor will have three poles rather than the two poles as shown in this article. There are two good reasons for a motor to have three poles:

  • It causes the motor to have better dynamics. In a two-pole motor, if the electromagnet is at the balance point, perfectly horizontal between the two poles of the field magnet when the motor starts, you can imagine the armature getting "stuck" there. That never happens in a three-pole motor.

  • Each time the commutator hits the point where it flips the field in a two-pole motor, the commutator shorts out the battery (directly connects the positive and negative terminals) for a moment. This shorting wastes energy and drains the battery needlessly. A three-pole motor solves this problem as well.

It is possible to have any number of poles, depending on the size of the motor and the specific application it is being used in.

For more information on motors (including how to make your own!), check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information!

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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