When you think about electromagnets in industry, there’s generally one picture that comes to mind: a big magnet on a bigger crane, swooping over a pile of scrap metal and pulling out iron and steel, moving it from one spot to another while holding the heavy scrap in place through sheer magnetic power. To be sure, you’ll see lots of magnets catching ferrous scrap if you keep an eye peeled on demolition sites and scrap yards. But electromagnets do more than sort scrap—much more. There are some surprising uses of industrial magnets you probably didn’t know about if you’ve only been concentrating on their most obvious roles in heavy industry. We’ll take a look at a few of these interesting applications below.

Food and Pharmaceutical Production

Living in an industrialized nation establishes certain expectations, namely, the expectation of unadulterated food and drugs. It’s imperative that we are able to eat and medicate safely, and industrial electromagnets make that possible. The delicate machinery that goes into mass-scale production of food and pharmaceutical products is prone to breakage along the assembly line, and the long road that food takes from raw materials to finished product can inadvertently pick up some tiny bits of metal along the way—tiny bits of metal that would be highly dangerous if one were to ingest them. By periodically sweeping assembly lines with electromagnets, manufacturers are able to exercise necessary quality control and remove metals that humans might miss, keeping us safe when these products go to market.

Airplane Safety

As you’re boarding an airplane, there’s a lot on your mind: finding your seat, securing just enough space in the overhead bins, and trying to collect your thoughts after a hectic minute or two. You probably don’t pay attention to what’s going on down on the tarmac. Indeed, there’s a lot of action at ground level that doesn’t cross flyers’ minds, but without which, their planes could never take off. Magnetic sweepers clear the runways before flights to pick up any metallic debris that could damage the planes’ wheels, helping to ensure safe takeoffs and landings.

Law Enforcement

Yet another surprising use of industrial magnets you probably didn’t know about is in detective work. If you’re a fan of police procedurals, you’ve probably seen the criminals try to ensure the perfect crime by tossing the murder weapon into the water, never to be seen again. Though not every case is quite so lurid, law enforcement does repurpose scrap handling magnets to sweep for underwater debris. Quite often, thanks to electromagnets, it’s “case closed.”