A brief refresher in spring constants using F=kx

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A brief refresher in spring constants using F=kx

© All Rights Reserved

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Hooke's Law

By Steven Holzner from Physics I For Dummies, 2nd Edition

Any physicist knows that if an object applies a force to a spring, then the spring applies

an equal and opposite force to the object. Hookes law gives the force a spring exerts

on an object attached to it with the following equation:

F = kx

where the minus sign shows that this force is in the opposite direction of the force thats

stretching or compressing the spring. (k is called the spring constant, which measures

how stiff and strong the spring is. x is the distance the spring is stretched or

compressed away from its equilibrium or rest position.)

The force exerted by a spring is called a restoring force; it always acts to restore the

spring toward equilibrium. In Hookes law, the negative sign on the springs force means

that the force exerted by the spring opposes the springs displacement.

The preceding figure shows a ball attached to a spring. You can see that if the spring

isnt stretched or compressed, it exerts no force on the ball. If you push the spring,

however, it pushes back, and if you pull the spring, it pulls back.

Hookes law is valid as long as the elastic material youre dealing with stays elastic

that is, it stays within its elastic limit. If you pull a spring too far, it loses its stretchy

ability. As long as a spring stays within its elastic limit, you can say that F = kx. When a

spring stays within its elastic limit and obeys Hookes law, the spring is called an ideal

spring.

Suppose that a group of car designers knocks on your door and asks whether you can

help design a suspension system. Sure, you say. They inform you that the car will

have a mass of 1,000 kilograms, and you have four shock absorbers, each 0.5 meters

long, to work with. How strong do the springs have to be? Assuming these shock

absorbers use springs, each one has to support a mass of at least 250 kilograms, which

weighs the following:

F = mg = (250 kg)(9.8 m/s2) = 2,450 N

where F equals force, m equals the mass of the object, and g equals the acceleration

due to gravity, 9.8 meters per second2. The spring in the shock absorber will, at a

minimum, have to give you 2,450 newtons of force at the maximum compression of 0.5

meters. What does this mean the spring constant should be? Hookes law says

F = kx

Looking only at the magnitudes and therefore omitting the negative sign, you get

The springs used in the shock absorbers must have spring constants of at least 4,900

Newtons per meter. The car designers rush out, ecstatic, but you call after them, Dont

forget, you need to at least double that if you actually want your car to be able to handle

potholes.

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