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Published on Mar 16, 2012
Oxygen gas is condensed into liquid form and then poured between the poles of a strong magnet so we can observe its paramagnetic properties.
We send O2 gas through a copper coil, which is then immersed in about 2 liters of liquid nitrogen (77 Kelvin, or minus 196 degrees Celsius). As the O2 travels through the coil it loses enough heat to change from a gas to a liquid, and that liquid is collected in a small pre-cooled Dewar. Liquid nitrogen is poured between the poles of the permanent magnet, but since its diamagnetic properties lead to only a very weak interaction with the field, it just sloshes through as if it were water. The liquid oxygen, on the other hand, sticks between the poles of the magnet until it boils away.
Because the oxygen molecule has an electronic structure that favors the non-cancellation of two of the electron spins, its net magnetic moment is free to point in the direction of an external magnetic field (just as a compass needle does). When enough of these moments are aligned, the material as a whole behaves like a single magnet. At room temperature only a small fraction of the moments are able to line up perfectly with the external field, but when oxygen is cooled and condensed into a liquid the effect is more noticeable.