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Applications of Quadratic Functions

Learning Objective(s)
Apply quadratic functions to real world situations in order to solve problems.


Quadratic functions are more than algebraic curiositiesthey are widely used in science,
business, and engineering. The U-shape of a parabola can describe the trajectories of water
jets in a fountain and a bouncing ball, or be incorporated into structures like the parabolic
reflectors that form the base of satellite dishes and car headlights. Quadratic functions help
forecast business profit and loss, plot the course of moving objects, and assist in determining
minimum and maximum values. Most of the objects we use every day, from cars to clocks,
would not exist if someone, somewhere hadn't applied quadratic functions to their design.

We commonly use quadratic equations in situations where two things are multiplied together
and they both depend of the same variable. For example, when working with area, if both
dimensions are written in terms of the same variable, we use a quadratic equation. Because the
quantity of a product sold often depends on the price, we sometimes use a quadratic equation
to represent revenue as a product of the price and the quantity sold. Quadratic equations are
also used when gravity is involved, such as the path of a ball or the shape of cables in a
suspension bridge.

Using the Parabola

A very common and easy-to-understand application of a quadratic function is the trajectory

followed by objects thrown upward at an angle. In these cases, the parabola represents the path
of the ball (or rock, or arrow, or whatever is tossed). If we plot distance on the x-axis and height
on the y-axis, the distance of the throw will be the x value when y is zero. This value is one of
the roots of a quadratic equation, or x-intercepts, of the parabola. We know how to find the
roots of a quadratic equationby either factoring, completing the square, or by applying
the quadratic formula.

Lets look at a throw made by a shot-putter. Notice that x = 0 when the shot-putter has the shot
(a heavy metal ball) in his handthe shot hasn't gone anywhere yet. The shot-putter usually
starts with the shot at his shoulder, so y (height) is not 0 when x = 0:

Problem A shot-put throw can be modeled using the
equation ,
where x is distance traveled (in feet) and y is
the height (also in feet). How long was the
The throw ends when the
shot hits the ground. The
height y at that point is 0, so
set the equation equal to
This equation is difficult to
factor or to complete the
square, so we'll solve by
applying the quadratic


Find both roots.


Do the roots make sense?

The parabola described by
the quadratic function has
two x-intercepts. But the shot
x 46.4 or -4.9 only traveled along part of
that curve.

One solution, -4.9, cannot be

the distance traveled because
it is a negative number.

The other solution, 46.4 feet,

must give the distance of the
Approximately 46.4 feet

Although a stadium field of synthetic turf appears to be flat, its surface is actually shaped
like a parabola. This is so that rainwater runs off to the sides. If we take a cross section
of the turf, the surface can be modeled by , where x is
the distance from the left end of the field and y is the height of the field. What is the width
of the field?

A) 80 ft
B) 1.5 ft
C) 234 ft
D) 160 ft

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Finding the Maximum and Minimum

Another common use of the quadratic equation in real world applications is to find maximum
(the most or highest) or minimum (the least or lowest) values of something. Recall that the
vertex is the turning point of a parabola. For a parabola opening downward, the vertex is the
high point, which occurs at the maximum possible y value. For a parabola opening upward, the
vertex is the lowest point of the parabola, and occurs at the minimum y value.

To use a quadratic equation to find a maximum or minimum, we usually want to put the
quadratic equation into the vertex form of a quadratic equation, . This lets
us quickly identify the coordinates of the vertex (h, k).

Let's see how this works by trying a motion problem. The equation is
commonly used to model an object that is launched or thrown. The variable h represents the
height in feet, and t represents the time in seconds. The other two values are usually given
numbers: h0 is the initial height in feet and v0 is the initial velocity in feet/second.
When working with this equation, we assume the object is in free fall, which means it is moving
under the sole influence of gravity. There is no air resistance or any other interference of any
kind (not so likely in the real world, but still, these equations are quite helpful).

Problem A ball is launched upward at 48 ft/s from a
platform that is 100 ft. high. Find the
maximum height the ball reaches and how
long it will take to get there.
Start with the equation that models an object
being launched or thrown

Substitute the initial velocity v0 = 48

and height h0 = 100.
Since we want to get the vertex form of the
equation, a(x h)2, factor -16 out of the first
two terms. The value of a is -16 and we will
use t for x. That way we can complete the
square on t2 3t to get the equation in
vertex form.
Remember that when we complete the
square, we add a value to the expression.
Because of the coefficient on the t2 term, this
can get a little confusing, so we are going to
prepare to complete the square for t2 3t by
adding c to t2 3t, inside the parentheses.

When we add a quantity to one side of the

equation, we must also add it to the other
side. Because the quantity added, c, is
inside the parenthesis on the right, we are
actually adding -16c. This means when we
add the quantity to the left side, we must add
To complete the square on x2 + bx, we

add , so .
Substitute this value in for c on both sides of
the equation.
Simplify, writing the square of the binomial
on the right
and on the left.
Add 36 to both sides. We now have the
vertex form, and can identify the vertex

as .

The x-coordinate is t in this equation, which

stands for time. The y-coordinate represents
The maximum height is
136 feet and it will take
1.5 seconds to reach
this height

We could have found the vertex by using other methods, such as by graphing or by using the

formula to find the x-coordinate of the vertex, then substitute that x-value into the
original formula to get the y-value of the vertex).

A farmer has 1000 feet of fencing and a very big field. She can enclose a rectangular
area with dimensions x ft and 500 x ft. What is the largest rectangular area she can

A) 62,500 ft2
B) 250,000 ft2
C) 1,000 ft2
D) 500 ft2

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Modeling a Situation

Quadratic equations are sometimes used to model situations and relationships in business,
science and medicine. A common use in business is to maximize profit, that is, the difference
between the total revenue (money taken in) and the production costs (money spent).

The relationship between the cost of an item and the quantity sold is often linear. In other words,
for each $1 increase in price there is a corresponding decrease in quantity sold. (Think about it:
if the price of something goes up, do you buy more or less? Hopefully less!) Once we determine
a relationship between the selling price of an item and the quantity sold, we can think about how
to generate the most profit. At what selling price do we make the most money?
The amount of profit will be found by taking the total revenue (the quantity sold multiplied by the
selling price) and subtracting the cost to produce the all the items: Profit = Total Revenue
Production Costs. We can integrate the linear relationship of selling price to quantity and
the Profit formula and create a quadratic equation, which we can then maximize. Lets look at
an example:

Here is a sample data set:

Quantity Sold in 1
Selling Price $ (s)
year (q)
10 1000
15 900
20 800
25 700

In order to calculate the profit, we also need to know how much it costs to produce each item.
For this example, the cost to produce each item is $10.

Problem Using the data given above,
determine the selling price s,
which produces the maximum
yearly profit.
Plot s on the horizontal axis
and q on the vertical axis. Use
any two of the points on the
straight line of the plot to find
the slope of the line to be -20.
Read the y-intercept as 1200.

Put these values into slope-

intercept form (y = mx + b):
q = -20s + 1200

q = -20s + 1200

q = quantity sold
s = selling price of the item
Profit formula is P = Total
Revenue Production Costs
P = sq 10q
Total Revenue = price
quantity sold

Production Costs = cost per

item quantity sold

So P = sq 10q
Substitute -20s + 1200 for q in
P = s(-20s + 1200) 10(-20s + 1200) profit formula.

Multiply the expressions and

P = -20s2 + 1200s + 200s 12000 combine like terms. We now
have a quadratic function.
P = -20s2 + 1400s 12000
By finding the vertex of the
parabola, we will find the
selling price that will generate
the most profit. The x-axis
represents selling price, so the
value of the x-coordinate at
the vertex represents the best

The y-value at the vertex will

give the amount of profit
Find the x-coordinate of the
vertex by applying the

formula . In this
case, the variable is s rather
than x. The other values
are a = -20, the coefficient in
the s2 term, and 1400, the
coefficient in the s term.
The selling price that generates the
maximum profit is $35

Here is a graph of the profit function, showing the vertex:

Next is a word problem you may not think is a quadratic equation. The area problem below
does not include a quadratic formula of any type and the problem seems to be something you
have solved many times before by simply multiplying. But in order to solve it, you will need to
use a quadratic equation.

Bob made a quilt that is 4 ft x 5 ft. He has 10 sq. ft. of fabric to create a
border around the quilt. How wide should he make the border to use all
the fabric? (The border must be the same width on all four sides.)

Sketch the problem. Since we

dont know the width of the
border, we give it the variable x.
Since each side of the original 4
x 5 quilt has the border of
width x added, the length of the
quilt with the border will be 5 +
2x, and the width will be 4 + 2x.

(This is where you may start to

think Ah ha, this may be a
quadratic equation after all. We
have both dimensions written in
the same variable, and will
multiply them to get an area!")

Area of border = Area of the blue rectangle minus We are only interested in the
the area of the red rectangle area of the border strips. Write
an expression for the area of the
Area of border = (4 + 2x)(5 + 2x) (4)(5) border.

We have 10 sq ft of fabric for the

10 = (4 + 2x)(5 + 2x) 20 border, so set the area of the
border to be 10.

Multiply (4 + 2x)(5 + 2x).

Subtract 10 from both sides so
that we have a quadratic
equation set equal to zero and
can apply the quadratic formula
to find the roots of the equation.
Use the quadratic formula. In this
case, a = 4, b = 18, and c = -10.


Find the solutions, making sure

that the is evaluated for both
Ignore the solution x = -5, as the
width could not be negative.

The width of the border should
be 0.5 ft.

You are provided with the following price vs. quantity information. Write an equation that
will represent yearly profit P for a selling price s. The production cost per item is $30.

Selling Quantity
Price s Sold q
100 7000
200 6000
500 3000
600 2000
800 0

A) P = -10s + 8000
B) P = sq 30q
C) P =
D) P =

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Quadratic functions are used in many types of real world situations. They are useful in
describing the trajectory of a ball, determining the height of a thrown object and in optimizing
profit for businesses. When solving a problem using a quadratic function it may be necessary to
find the vertex or to describe a section of the parabola.