Magnetic Phenomena

Is Magnetic Levitation Possible

(Original by Philip Gibbs and Andre Geim, 18-March-1997)

A theorem due to Samuel Earnshaw proves that it is not possible to achieve static levitation using any combination of fixed magnets and electric charges. Static levitation means stable suspension of an object against gravity. There are, however, a few ways of to levitate by getting round the assumptions of the theorem.

Earnshaw’s Theorem

The proof of Earnshaw’s theorem is very simple if you understand some basic vector calculus. The static force as a function of position F(x) acting on any body in vacuum due to gravitation, electrostatic and magnetostatic fields will always be divergenceless. divF = 0. At a point of equilibrium the force is zero. If the equilibrium is stable the force must point in towards the point of equilibrium on some small sphere around the point. However, by Gauss’ theorem,

   /           /
  | F(x).dS = | divF dV
  /S          /V 

the integral of the radial component of the force over the surface must be equal to the integral of the divergence of the force over the volume inside which is zero. QED!

This theorem even applies to extended bodies which may even be flexible and conducting so long as they are not diamagnetic. They will always be unstable to lateral rigid displacements of the body in some direction about any position of equilibrium. You cannot get round it using any combination of fixed magnets with fixed pendulums or whatever. ref: Earnshaw, S., On the nature of the molecular forces which regulate the constitution of the luminferous ether., Trans. Camb. Phil. Soc., 7, pp 97-112 (1842)


There are not really exceptions to any theorem but there are ways around it which violate the assumptions. Here are some of them.

Quantum effects: Technically any body sitting on a surface is levitated a microscopic distance above it. This is due to electromagnetic intermolecular forces and is not what is really meant by the term “levitation”. Because of the small distances, quantum effects are significant but Earnshaw’s theorem assumes that only classical physics is relevant.

Feedback: If you can detect the position of an object in space and feed it into a control system which can vary the strength of electromagnets which are acting on the object, it is not difficult to keep it levitated. You just have to program the system to weaken the strength of the magnet whenever the object approaches it and strengthen when it moves away. You could even do it with movable permanent magnets. These methods violate the assumption of Earnshaw’s theorem that the magnets are fixed. Electromagnetic suspension is one system used in magnetic levitation trains (maglev) such as the one at Birmingham airport, England. It is also possible to buy gadgets which levitate objects in this way.

Diamagnetism: It is possible to levitate superconductors and other diamagnetic materials. This is also used in maglev trains. It has become common place to see the new high temperature superconducting materials levitated in this way. A superconductor is perfectly diamagnetic which means it expels a magnetic field. Other diamagnetic materials are common place and can also be levitated in a magnetic field if it is strong enough. Water droplets and even frogs have been levitated in this way at a magnetics laboratory in the Netherlands (Physics World, April 1997).

Earnshaw’s theorem does not apply to diamagnetics as they behave like “anti-magnets”: they align ANTI-parallel to magnetic lines while the magnets meant in the theorem always try to align in parallel. In diamagnetics, electrons adjust their trajectories to compensate the influence of the external magnetic field and this results in an induced magnetic field which is directed in the opposite direction. It means that the induced magnetic moment is antiparallel to the external field. Superconductors are diamagnetics with the macroscopic change in trajectories (screening current at the surface). The frog is another example but the electron orbits are changed in every molecule of its body. refs: Braunbeck, W. Free suspension of bodies in electric and magnetic fields, Zeitschrift für Physik, 112, 11, pp753-763 (1939) Brandt, Science, Jan 1989

Oscillating Fields: an oscillating magnetic field will induce an alternating current in a conductor and thus generate a levitating force. A similar effect can be achieved with a suitably cut rotating disc. The Oscillating field is a way of making a diamagnetic of a conducting body. Due to a finite resistance, the induced changes in electron trajectories disappear after a short time but you can create a permanent screening current at the surface by applying an oscillating field and conducting bodies behave just like superconducting bodies.

ref: B.V. Jayawant, “Electromagnetic Levitation and Suspension Systems”, Publishers: Edward Arnold, London, 1981

A high temperature superconductor in magnetic suspension

Rotation: Surprisingly, it is possible to levitate a rotating object with fixed magnets. The levitron is a commercial toy which exploits the effect. The spinning top can levitate delicately above a base with a careful arrangement of magnets so long as its rotation speed and height remains within certain limits. This solution is particularly clever because it only uses permanent magnets. Ceramic materials are used to prevent induced currents which would dissipate the rotational energy.

A Levitron

Actually, the levitron can also be considered as a sort of diamagnetic. By rotation, you stabilise the direction of the magnetic moment in space (magnetic gyroscope). Then you place this magnet with the fixed magnetisation (in contrast to the “fixed magnet”) in an anti-parallel magnetic field and it levitates.

ref: Berry, Proc Roy Soc London 452, 1207-1220 (1996).

The Real Levitation

It is truly fascinating to watch an object freely hovering in mid-air and, not surprisingly, levitation has found its way into myths, science fiction and even politics . Leaving science fiction aside, physics does know scores of different ways to levitate things. For instance, a helicopter can be considered as a very impressive levitation device that uses a stream of air to keep floating. Scientists have also found many ways to levitate things without any noise or the need for petrol or air, by using electromagnetic fields. Levitating trains and levitating displays are but two examples of electromagnetic levitation. However, in all such schemes, a source of energy (an engine or a battery at least) is always required to keep an object afloat. Remove the battery and the levitation inevitably stops.

Today’s science knows only one way to achieve REAL levitation, i.e. such that no energy input is required and the levitation can last forever. The real levitation makes use of diamagnetism , an intrinsic property of many materials referring to their ability to expel a portion, even if a minute one, of an external magnetic field. Electrons in such materials rearrange their orbits slightly so that they expel the external field. As a result, diamagnetic materials repel and are repelled by strong magnetic fields.

Three basic schemes using various aspects of diamagnetism allow the true levitation:

Superconducting levitation

Superconductors are ideal diamagnetics and completely expel magnetic field at low temperatures. The picture shows a superconducting pallet levi- tating above a strong magnet. This levitation does not suffer any stability problems because the magnetic flux is pinned by defects in superconducting materials. For this fortuitous effect, superconductors can levitate even below a magnet. Superconducting levitation is a very well known phenomenon and not discussed further on this site.

Diamagnetic levitation

An object does not need to be superconducting to levitate. Normal things, even humans, can do it as well, if placed in a strong magnetic field. Although the majority of ordinary materials, such as wood or plastic, seem to be non-magnetic, they, too, expel a very small portion (0.00001) of an applied magnetic field, i.e. exhibit very weak diamagnetism. Such materials can be levitated using magnetic fields of about 10 Tesla. For several decades, this levitation possibility had been in oblivion – even for experts in high magnetic fields – until we levitated a live frog in 1996.

Diamagnetically stabilised levitation

Low temperatures (such that air turns liquid) and powerful magnets (such that cooking pans are drawn from a distance of several meters) are not what one is likely to have at home to be able to watch the supercon- ducting or diamagnetic levitation. Engineers designing bearings in a motor or a disk drive are also unlikely to have ever considered levitating devices (magnetic bearings) that would require such conditions. Now, there is a way – at last – to have miniature levitating devices that even schoolchildren can make. As the picture shows, the real levitation is now at our fingertips.