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Meggison Physics Honors 15 April 2008 The Physics of Bridges Bridges are an integral part of everyday life. From bridges spanning vast bodies of water to highway overpasses and logs crossing a small ditch, bridges are essential to our routines, lifestyles and economies. However, what seems to be a relatively simple structure is a careful balancing act between many different forces and unforeseen variables. The physics of bridges revolves around the balance of forces. The structure must be able to support the bridge's dead weight and the weight of the load it carries such as people and vehicles. Another key force acting upon a bridge is its environment and the weather affecting it (“bridge”). Bridges rely heavily upon Newton’s three laws of motion. Newton’s first law of motion states that an object in motion will remain in motion and an object at rest will remain at rest as long as the net force is zero. Since bridges are predominately stationary, they must adhere to having a net force of zero (Kwong). To mathematically understand Newton’s first law, his second law is necessary. Newton’s second law states that a force is equal to its mass multiplied by its acceleration. Since bridges do not have horizontal motion, their acceleration is vertical, or the force of gravity. Newton’s third law counteracts the downward pull of gravity. The law states that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. A bridge’s downward force is counteracted by the normal force of the earth and the bridge’s supports. Newton’s three laws are instrumental
arch. Bridges are intended to carry loads of people and traffic. suspension. These loads cause two other forces to occur. however. . Tension forces occur when a bridge is expanded or “stretched. the lower portion of the deck experiences tension as it is stretched (Morrissey and Kwong). The most basic. the portion that carries the live load. Forces can also be dissipated throughout the structure so that no one place has to cope with an excessive force (Kwong). and cablestay. If a girder bridge has more than two supports it is classified as being continuous. There are five common types of bridge design: girder. truss.Thompson 2 to understanding how a bridge functions. Forces can be transferred from a weak area to an area that can better cope with the increased force. It is necessary for bridges to efficiently cope with the change of forces imposed by their live loads. Girder bridges experience tension in the lower portion of their decks and compression in the upper portion (“bridge”). 2008) Common examples of such bridges are highway overpasses which are generally classified as a simple girder bridge because they only have two supports. and most common in eastern North Carolina. These two disparate forces are generally found in most bridges. Meanwhile. Under the weight of the live load the upper portion of the deck is compressed as it bends. experiences both compression and tension. This generally occurs via two different methods. is the girder bridge. they are only part of a larger scheme (Morrissey). Each of these five types have their advantages and disadvantages. (Scott Thompson. in a typical highway overpass the bridge’s deck.” Compression forces are the opposite of tension forces and occur when the structure is compressed or “scrunched” together. For example. This is commonly known as a live load while a bridge’s weight is known as its dead load.
and any type of arch. The load to be carried determines how a truss bridge bridge is designed. arch bridges. This is beneficial in areas where deep waters prevent numerous supports. The bridge’s design is similar to a girder bridge. Compression is the only force present in an arch and a secure foundation for the bridge is absolutely necessary for its stability (“bridge”). Trusses are popular because they can carry very heavy loads while using a small amount of materials in their construction. which are under compression. Usually the bridge has at least two support towers. however. Such bridges cannot withstand horizontal motion. are excellent ways to efficiently dissipate weight. . the triangular sections of a truss help to distribute its load. A suspension bridge’s deck is hung from a series of lesser support cables.Bridges”). Each relatively weak triangle “cooperates” with the other triangles and together they become very strong. Truss bridges rely upon triangles in their design to efficiently transfer their loads. Arch bridges are best suited for spanning rivers and valleys (“Matsuo Bridge . It also is an advantage in areas with a large amount of shipping traffic. that the main cables are “draped” over. Truss bridges use both compression and tension forces to balance their loads. Suspension bridges are somewhat unique in the fact that they can span large distances and use very few supports.Thompson 3 Although not as widely used as in the past.Bridges” and “bridges”). hung from two larger main cables that run the length of the entire of the bridge which are also under tension. which are under tension. If the length of the bridge requires supports they are also under compression (“Matsuo Bridge . Generally the deck of a truss bridge and its diagonal crossbars are under tension. Meanwhile the upper part of the truss and its vertical connectors to the base are under compression. At the ends of the bridge the main cables are anchored to maintain their tension (“bridge”).
they must also consider outside forces such as weather. Not only do bridge designers have to plan for the expected forces on a bridge such as dead and live loads. The affected object will begin to resonate with increasing magnitude. a lighter deck will better withstand an earthquake. Today. The freak. such as the Tacoma Narrows bridge. Each section within the bridge’s span is compressed against neighboring deck segments. Also. In some cases. cable-stay bridges are much more complex and the lesser support cables connect directly to the main tower. Resonance occurs when a stimulus creates a frequency that is in tune with another objects natural frequency.Bridges”). acts of mother nature can be the most challenging for a bridge designer. the resonance can lead to its destruction. typhoons. such bridges are only as strong as their weakest deck segment. but powerful. As bridges transverse large bodies of water they are susceptible to the full brunt of powerful storms such as hurricanes. External forces such as wind are mitigated through careful attention to aerodynamics and structure weight.Thompson 4 Cable-stay bridges are similar to a suspension bridge in that they are supported from above by cables which then connect to support towers. resonance can be mitigated by including dampeners to prevent runaway resonance throughout a bridge. and nor’easters. A heavier bridge deck helps negate the effects of wind. fatigue and a bridge’s enemy—resonance. The support cables are under tension while both the support towers and road deck are under compression (“bridge” and “Matsuo Bridge . In many areas they are also vulnerable to earthquakes. However. Certain wind speeds can also lead to a bridge’s disaster if they cause it to resonate. . This poses a special challenge to designing large scale bridges in Japan such as the record-setting Akashi-Kaikyō suspension bridge. however. If one of these sections fails the entire bridge’s tension and compression balance will be disrupted. not to a main cable that attaches to the towers.
the following forces are acting upon the highway overpass. This example overpass does not have a live load.Thompson 5 Dampeners limit the resonance to one section of the bridge and prevent it from escalating (Morrissey). . F initial on reactant=-F reactant on the initial -9800=-(-9800) When Newton’s second and third laws are combined. Although fatigue will ultimately occur in any structure. Newton’s second law is used to determine the downward force caused by the bridge. it can be mitigated through careful maintenance and bridge design. Newton’s three laws play an integral role in designing a bridge and explaining the forces acting upon a bridge. Designers should create a bridge that equally distributes its forces through the structure. The two supports will be placed equal distances apart to support the 1000 kg bridge. Bridge fatigue made an attention grabbing appearance in August 2007 with the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis.8)=-9800 N The -9800 N force is counteracted by an upward force from the ground and bridge supports according to Newton’s third law. Because the two supports are equal distances apart they equally split the bridge’s dead weight. Each of his three laws will be explained in the following example of a simple highway overpass. F=ma=mg F=(1000)(-9. Its collapse has been attributed to bridge fatigue. This design method will prevent one section of a bridge from coping with an excessive force that will lead to premature fatigue.
A simple girder bridge. downward force of the bridge + the upward force of the ground and supports = net force -9800+9800=0 N An overpass would also experience tension and compression forces. Bridge designs . The upper portion of the deck would be compressed as it becomes concave. This is mathematically denoted by a net force of zero when all of the forces are added together. However. have one absolutely necessary requirement in common: they must effectively balance both their dead load and their live load. The lower portion of the deck will experience tension as it becomes convex under the bridge’s load. especially under a live load. such as a highway overpass.Thompson 6 9800 N 4900 N 4900 N Newton’s first law is also exemplified in the fact that the bridge is stationary. all bridges. is the easiest way to understand the forces acting upon a bridge. albeit more complex. other types of bridges balance forces in similar. Despite their differences. A failure to do so will almost ensure the bridge’s complete failure. Under such circumstances the deck slightly bends. manners. whether simple or complex.
Thompson 7 must also consider weather and other outside influences to withstand the wrath of mother nature and the fatigue of time. .
” 20 Mar.05. 2008 <http://www.ubc. .” Los Angeles Times 3 Aug.co. Kwong.howstuffworks. 2007: A20.08. Norman. Vartabedian and Nicholas Riccardi.x.nclive. “The Physics of Bridges. <http://www.ppt>. 2008.edu:2221/eb/article-9117290>. <http://www. <http://www. NC. ProQuest Newspapers.com/bridge. Pettigrew Regional Lib.edu/ynhti/ curriculum/units/2001/5/01. 2008.lib.Thompson 8 Works Cited "bridge. “Matsuo Bridge . Michael. 6 Apr.” 6 Apr. 2008.org/>. 2008.yale. “Minneapolis Bridge Disaster: The Physics Behind the Fall.ca/ outreach/phys420/p420_04/norman/physics_of_bridges.shtm>.ncsu.physics. Plymouth.Bridges.html>.” 6 Apr. “The Physics of Bridges. Theresa.” 7 Apr.jp/ english/bridges/basics/index. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. NC Live. Matthews. 2008 <http://nclive.. 9 Apr.htm>. “How Bridges Work. <http://www.matsuo-bridge. 2008. Morrissey." Encyclopædia Britannica.
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