Electromagnetic induction — using the LEFT hand rule…?

They do observe I grow to infinite purchase,
The left hand way;

John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

Electromagnetic induction — the fact that moving a conductor inside a magnetic field in a certain direction will generate (or induce) a potential difference across its ends — is one of those rare-in-everyday-life phenomena that students very likely will never have come across before. In their experience, potential differences have heretofore been produced by chemical cells or by power supply units that have to be plugged into the mains supply. Because of this, many of them struggle to integrate electromagnetic induction (EMI) into their physical schema. It just seems such a random, free floating and unconnected fact.

What follows is a suggested teaching sequence that can help GCSE-level students accept the physical reality of EMI without outraging their physical intuition or appealing to a sketchily-explained idea of ‘cutting the field lines’.

‘Look, Ma! No electrical cell!’

I think it is immensely helpful for students to see a real example of EMI in the school laboratory, using something like the arrangement shown below.

A length of copper wire used to cut the magnetic field between two Magnadur magnets on a yoke will induce (generate) a small potential difference of about 5 millivolts. What is particularly noteworthy about doing this as a class experiment is how many students ask ‘How can there be a potential difference without a cell or a power supply?’

The point of this experiment is that in this instance the student is the power supply: the faster they plunge the wire between the magnets then the larger the potential difference that will be induced. Their kinetic energy store is being used to generate electrical power instead of the more usual chemical energy store of a cell.

But how to explain this to students?

A common option at this point is to start talking about the conductor cutting magnetic field lines: this is hugely valuable, but I recommend holding fire on this picture for now — at least for novice learners.

What I suggest is that we explain EMI in terms of a topic that students will have recently covered: the motor effect.

This has two big ‘wins’:

  • It gives a further opportunity for students to practice and apply their knowledge of the motor effect.
  • Students get the chance to explain an initially unknown phenomenon (EMI) in terms of better understood phenomenon (motor effect). The motor effect will hopefully act as the footing (to use a term from the construction industry) for their future understanding of EMI.

Explaining EMI using the motor effect

The copper conductor contains many free conduction electrons. When the conductor is moved sharply downwards, the electrons are carried downwards as well. In effect, the downward moving conductor can be thought of as a flow of charge; or, more to the point, as an electrical current. However, since electrons are negatively charged, this downward flow of negative charge is equivalent to an upward flow of positive charge. That is to say, the conventional current direction on this diagram is upwards.

Applying Fleming Left Hand Rule (FLHR) to this instance, we find that each electron experiences a small force tugging it to the left — but only while the conductor is being moved downwards.

This results in the left hand side of the conductor becoming negatively charged and the right hand side becoming positively charged: in short, a potential difference builds up across the conductor. This potential difference only happens when the conductor is moving through the magnetic field in such a way that the electrons are tugged towards one end of the conductor. (There is, of course, the Hall Effect in some other instances, but we won’t go into that here.)

As soon as the conductor stops moving, the potential difference is no longer induced as there is no ‘charge flow’ through the magnetic field and, hence, no current and no FLHR motor effect force acting on the electrons.

Faraday’s model of electromagnetic induction

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) discovered the phenomenon of electromagnetic induction in 1831 and explained it using the idea of a conductor cutting magnetic field lines. This is an immensely valuable model which not only explains EMI but can also generate quantitative predictions and, yes, it should definitely be taught to students — but perhaps the approach outlined above is better to introduce EMI to students.

The left hand rule not knowing what the right hand rule is doing . . .

We usually apply Fleming’s Right Hand Rule (FRHW) to cases of EMI, Can we replace its use with FLHR? Perhaps, if you wanted to. However, FRHR is a more direct and straightforward shortcut to predicting the direction of conventional current in this type of situation.