Is Magnetism a Physical or Chemical Property? (And Why?)

Magnetism is a physical property. It is a characteristic of certain materials to attract or repel other objects based on their magnetic fields, without undergoing any chemical changes. 1 Magnetism is a result of the arrangement and behavior of electrons within the material, making it a purely physical phenomenon. 2

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Key Takeaways: Is Magnetism a Physical or Chemical Property?

  • Magnetism is a physical property because it relates to the behavior of electrons and their magnetic fields in certain materials.
  • Magnetism is not a chemical property because it does not depend on the chemical composition or the chemical reactions of a substance.
  • The magnetic properties of a material are determined by the arrangement and movement of electrons in the atoms, which is a physical phenomenon.

Why is magnetism a physical property?

Magnetism is considered a physical property because it relates to the behavior and interactions of matter at the atomic and subatomic levels. 3 It is an inherent characteristic of certain materials that arises from the movement of charged particles, such as electrons, within the material. 4

The concept of electron spin and orbital motion is responsible for magnetism. 5 Electrons in atoms have both intrinsic angular momentum (spin) and move in specific orbits around the nucleus. These electron motions generate tiny magnetic fields associated with each atom.

When these magnetic fields align in a material, they produce a macroscopic magnetic effect that is observable and measurable. Materials that exhibit this alignment and have the ability to attract or repel other magnetic materials are called magnets.

There are two primary types of magnetism:

  1. Ferromagnetism: In certain materials, like iron, nickel, and cobalt, the magnetic dipoles (tiny magnetic moments) of individual atoms spontaneously align in a specific direction over a large region. This alignment creates a strong and persistent macroscopic magnetic field. 6
  2. Paramagnetism and Diamagnetism: In these cases, the magnetic moments of atoms do not align as strongly as in ferromagnetic materials. In paramagnetism, the magnetic dipoles align in the presence of an external magnetic field, but this alignment disappears when the external field is removed. 7 In diamagnetism, materials have a weak negative response to an applied magnetic field, causing a slight repulsion. 8

As a physical property, magnetism plays a crucial role in various natural phenomena and technological applications, ranging from the operation of motors and generators to magnetic data storage and medical imaging (MRI).

Why is magnetism not a chemical property?

Magnetism is not a chemical property because it does not depend on the chemical composition or the chemical reactions of a substance. Chemical properties are characteristics of a substance that describe how it interacts with other substances in chemical reactions or changes in its chemical composition. 9

Magnetism, on the other hand, arises from the arrangement and movement of electrons in atoms and the resulting magnetic fields that these motions generate. It is a physical property that is governed by the principles of electromagnetism and is related to the intrinsic properties of the material’s atomic and subatomic structure.

Chemical properties, such as flammability, reactivity with acids, or corrosion resistance, are specific to the chemical nature of a substance and are determined by its electron configuration, bonding, and molecular structure.

These properties dictate how the substance will undergo chemical reactions or interact with other substances to form new compounds.

In contrast, magnetism is a physical phenomenon that can be observed in certain materials based on their atomic and electronic structure, regardless of their chemical identity. For example, iron and steel are both materials that can exhibit magnetism because of their similar atomic structures and the presence of unpaired electrons that can align their spins to create a magnetic field.

However, their chemical properties differ significantly as iron readily rusts (oxidizes), whereas steel is more resistant to corrosion.

In summary, while magnetism is an essential physical property that relates to the behavior of electrons and their magnetic fields in certain materials, it is not considered a chemical property because it is not influenced by the chemical reactions or composition of the material.

Further reading

Is Temperature a Physical or Chemical Change?
Is Melting Point Intensive or Extensive Property?
Is Length Intensive or Extensive Property?
Is Temperature Intensive or Extensive Property?
Is Color Intensive or Extensive Property?

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Jay is an educator and has helped more than 100,000 students in their studies by providing simple and easy explanations on different science-related topics. He is a founder of Pediabay and is passionate about helping students through his easily digestible explanations.

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  1. Magnetism – Wikipedia. (2013, March 22). Magnetism – Wikipedia.
  2. 2. Classes of Magnetic Materials. (2023, January 1). College of Science and Engineering.
  3. Magnetic Properties. (2013, October 2). Chemistry LibreTexts.
  4. Magnetism. (n.d.). Magnetism.
  5. Electron magnetic moment – Wikipedia. (2022, September 10). Electron Magnetic Moment – Wikipedia.
  7. Lecture Notes Chapter 1. (n.d.). Lecture Notes Chapter 1.
  8. Yamato, M., & Kimura, T. (2020, July 3). Magnetic Processing of Diamagnetic Materials. Polymers, 12(7), 1491.
  9. 3.5: Differences in Matter- Physical and Chemical Properties. (2016, April 4). Chemistry LibreTexts.

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