An atom consists of a number of negatively charged electrons, orbiting around a positively charged nucleus. These electrons also possess a quantity known as spin, which is roughly analogous to a spinning top. The combination of orbital and spin motions is called the angular momentum of the electron. Angular momentum is perhaps most easily understood in the case of the Earth: The earth spins about a central axis, which means it at has an angular momentum around that axis. The planets also have an angular momentum as they revolve about the sun.
Now, the angular momentum of an electron is a vector quantity, meaning it has direction. The motion of the electron produces a current, which in turn generates a tiny magnetic field in the direction given by the angular momentum. Thus an atom can behave like a dipole, meaning "two poles". The direction of the orbital and spin angular momentum of the electron determine the direction of the magnetic field for the electron and the entire atom, thus giving it "north" and "south" poles. Different atoms have different arrangements of electrons into their orbits, and thus have different angular momenta and dipolar properties.
A ferromagnetic material is composed of many microscopic magnets known as domains. Each domain is a region of the magnet, consisting of numerous atomic dipoles, all pointing in the same direction. A strong magnetic field will align the domains of a ferromagnet, or in other words, magnetize it. Once the magnetic field is removed, the domains will remain aligned, resulting in a permanent magnet. This effect is known as hysteresis.
Few materials are actually ferromagnetic; however, all substances have a diamagnetic nature. Diamagnetism means that the molecules within a substance will align themselves to an external magnetic field. The external magnetic field induces currents within the material, which in turn result in an internal magnetic field in the opposite direction. This effect is usually quite small and disappears when the external magnetic field is removed.
Some materials are paramagnetic. This is the case when the orbital and spin motions of the electrons in a material do not fully cancel each other, so that the individual atoms act like magnetic dipoles. These dipoles are randomly oriented, but will align themselves to an external magnetic field. However, when the field is removed, the material is no longer magnetized. Again, this effect is typically small. Neither diamagnetic nor paramagnetic materials exhibit magnetic domains.
The atomic behavior of magnetic materials is actually considerably more complicated than this, as it relies on the theory of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is the theory of physics used to describe the behavior of tiny particles such as electrons; like electromagnetic theory, it is complex and involves advanced mathematics.
Magnet Strength Measurements (B)--The units for measuring the field strength (flux density) of a magnet are Gauss or Tesla. 1 Tesla = 10,000 Gauss. The Earth's magnetic field is on the order of 1 Gauss. There are different ways to classify and measure field strength:
Ferrite (Ceramic) -- Also known as 'hard ceramic' magnets, this material is made from Strontium or Barium Ferrite. It was developed in the 1960s as a low-cost and more powerful alternative to AlNiCo and steel magnets. Less expensive than NdFeB magnets, but still very powerful and resistant to demagnetization. Useful everywhere. We carry both new and surplus in multiple shapes and sizes. Ferrite magnets are lower in power (B, Br, BHmax) compared to other formulations, and are very brittle. However, they have very high Hc and good Tc (see below), and are quite corrosion-resistant. A very cost-effective choice.
Other Types -- AlNiCo (Aluminum-Nickel-Cobalt) for medium strength and excellent machinability. Developed in the 1940s and still in use today. They perform much better than plain steel, but are much weaker in strength (lower B, Br and BHmax) and must be carefully stored since they are prone to demagnetization. Contact with a NdFeB magnet can easily reverse or destroy the field of an AlNiCo magnet.
-- SmCo (Samarium Cobalt) for high power and resistance to high temperatures and corrosion. Developed in the 1970s, these were the first so-called 'rare earth' magnets. They are almost as powerful as NdFeB magnets, and far more powerful than all the others (high B and Br). They are the most expensive magnet formulation, and usually only used where resistance to high temperatures (high Tc) and corrosion are needed. Also very brittle and hard to machine. -- Bonded (flexible) magnets are a rubberized formulation often seen on refrigerators and magnetic signs. Though they may be manufactured from any magnet formulation when powerdered and mixed with rubberizer, the result is always less powerful than a traditional sintered magnet of any formula. Used only where unusal and difficult shapes are needed.