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Roller coasters are governed by and embody some of the most fundamental principles of physics. A roller coaster going down a hill simply represents an intricate case of an object sliding down an inclined plane. The concepts of G forces, lateral G forces, centripetal forces, inertia and energy all play a part in understanding the fundamentals of rollercoaster physics. The concept of energy is useful in understanding the dynamics of roller coasters. Kinetic and potential energy are the 2 central forms of energy involved in the physics of roller coasters. Kinetic energy, to begin with, is the energy of motion. All moving objects have kinetic energy. The amount of kinetic energy a body has depends on its mass and speed. If the object has a large mass and travels at high speeds, then it has a lot of kinetic energy. Potential energy is energy that is stored in an object. This energy can be released and is often converted into other forms of energy like kinetic energy. The higher above the ground an object is the more potential energy it has. When a rollercoaster train is pulled up a first hill by motors, it is building up potential energy, which eventually gets converted into kinetic energy as it falls. The further it drops, the more potential energy is converted into kinetic energy, and the train speeds up due to gravitational acceleration. After it is pulled up the first hill by the motor, the rollercoaster operates entirely on the potential energy obtained. However, since more and more energy is always lost to dissipative forces like friction or air resistance, and also gets converted into sound and heat energy as the ride progresses, the first hill that the train is pulled up on has to be bigger than all the other hills and loops of the rollercoaster as enough energy has to be obtained to go through them. As such, the train will go slower towards the end of the ride than it did at the beginning. A rollercoaster represents controlled fall. The track directs the train’s path, so that it wouldn’t move as it would if the track weren’t there. Inclined planes represent the simplest form of controlled fall. The basic rule of falling down an inclined plane is that a falling body will accelerate faster the steeper the slope is. If the slope is completely vertical, the body will experience freefall. If the plane is entirely horizontal, it would not fall at all. These laws concern rollercoasters as well, although the track on drops is parabolic in shape and not like an inclined plane. So the steeper a hill’s drop, the faster the train accelerates down it. However, if a train was on a steep and a small drop which were the same height above the ground, then they would both reach the bottom at the same speed (if friction were disregarded). This is because, although the train accelerates slower on the small hill, it has more time in which to accelerate. The amount of potential energy depends only on the height above ground and not the steepness. Another concept important in understanding the physics of rollercoasters is the concept of G forces. When a body sits still in the earth’s gravitational field, it is in a 1 G environment. A G forge is the force of the seat pushing up on a body. Without this force it would fall straight through the seat. The seat must exert the same amount of force as the earth but in the opposite direction to keep the body sitting still. However, during freefall the seat does not support the body, which is why it is falling. Since the seat exerts no forces on the body, it experiences 0 Gs. This usually occurs when the coaster goes down hills. G forces greater than 1 can also be experienced. This is typically experienced at the bottom of hills where the seat must exert a greater force on a body than normal to stop it from falling and divert its path upwards. Although it feels like you are being pushed
into the seat, the seat is actually pushing up on you. Since G forces are measured positive when the train exerts an upward force on the rider, they are measured negative when the forces exerted are downward. Newton’s first law contains the principle of inertia which states that a moving body, if unaffected by external forces will continue motion in a straight line. Inertia also affects rollercoasters as they are also influenced by forces along their run. If it moves in a straight line, no forces will be directed towards the sides of the train. But if the train turns a curve, it will tend to want to go straight. The track has to exert a sidelong force on the train to redirect it from its path. The train, in turn, applies a force on the passengers. As with vertical forces, lateral forces can be measured in terms of Gs. Several factors affect the strength of lateral G forces like the speed of the train, the tightness of the curve and the amount of banking. The faster the train goes around the curve, the larger the force needed to keep it in the track. The higher the banking, the less lateral and more positive the Gs are. G forces are also employed when rollercoasters go upside down in loops. Because the train tends to go in a straight line and the track prevents this, there is an apparent outward force. Positive G forces are generated and the train stays on the track and the rider doesn’t fall out of the car. Since a positive G force means that the seat exerts a force away from the floor of the train, the force that is exerted on you by the seat at the top of the loop is towards the ground. To complete a vertical loop, a train has to enter the loop with enough kinetic energy to reach the top of the loop and still be in motion. The kinetic energy is then converted into potential energy and the train accelerates down the other side of the loop. As the train begins the loop, gravity and momentum pull the train out of the loop so the structure of the track provides the centripetal force. It is important that the train has enough outward momentum to counter the increase in centripetal force that occurs in the upper section of the loop. The forces applied by the loop depend on the speed of the train and the size of the loop. The faster the train or tighter the loop, the more positive Gs are applied. Vertical loops tend to be elliptical and not circular. Most are in a clothoid shape. The train is moving fairly fast as it enters the loop, so the loop here is very tight. At the top of the loop, the train is moving slowly, so the loop is In this way the G forces are fairly better balanced than in a circular loop. Many forces and principles affect the working of rollercoasters such forces, centripetal forces, banking, energy and inertia. Rollercoasters are a complex system of forces and energies which together to give a sense of danger and excitement while at the time are completely safe. act same as G loop not tighter.
Banking: It is the tilting of the track towards the inside of the turn to convert the lateral G forces into positive G forces. Centripetal force: It is the “seat force” that moves a train through a loop by pulling the train toward the centre of the loop. Freefall: A body that falls under the influence of no other force except gravity is said to be experiencing freefall. This represents the fastest acceleration possible. Kinetic energy: It is the energy of motion which all moving bodies possess. The amount of kinetic energy depends on the body’s mass and speed. Potential energy is stored energy and has the potential to change the state of an object’s motion. The amount of potential energy an object has depends on its height above the ground.
Q. explain and prove why an object would reach the ground at exactly the same speed on both a steep and flatter inclined plane of the same height, supposing that the force of friction is negligible. *** Ans. This is because although the train accelerates slower on the small hill, it has more time in which to do so.
Q. What is freefall? * Ans. Freefall is the force which a body experiences when it falls under the influence of nothing except gravity. Freefall represents the fastest form of acceleration possible. Q. In theory, the amounts of energy at the beginning and the end of the rollercoaster should be the same. However, this is not so. Explain why. ** Ans. In a perfect scenario, the amount of energy at the end of the journey should be the same as it was at the beginning. However, this is not so because some energy is always lost to dissipative forces like friction and air resistance and is also converted into heat and sound energy. As time passes more and more energy is exhausted to these forces. For this reason, the amount of energy at the end of the ride is less than at the beginning.
THE PHYSICS OF ROLLER COASTERS
The working of rollercoasters lies in the application of basic physics principles which include kinetic and potential energies, centripetal forces, gravity, velocity, G forces and inertia. Kinetic and potential energy are the two central forms of energy in rollercoaster physics. All moving objects have kinetic energy. Potential energy is stored energy that can be converted into other forms of energy like kinetic energy. A concept important in understanding the physics of roller coasters is that of G forces. As coasters go down hills you experience negative G forces and when the coaster goes up a hill you experience positive G forces. Another important concept is inertia. A coaster train moving in a straight line will tend to want to stay moving in a straight line. The track must exert a sideways force on the train, which in turn, applies a force on the passengers. These are lateral forces. These lateral forces can be reduced by increasing the amount of banking. Rollercoasters are a complex system of forces and energies which act together to give a sense of danger and excitement. Rollercoasters are safe if they are treated with respect.
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