﻿ Physics of Roller Coasters - K-12 Science Experiments and Background Information
Physics of Roller Coasters
K-12 Experiments & Background Information
For Science Labs, Lesson Plans, Class Activities & Science Fair Projects
For Primary, Elementary, Middle and High School Students and Teachers

Roller Coaster Experiments

Roller Coaster Background Information

## Definition

A roller coaster is a machine that uses gravity and inertia to send a train of cars along a winding track. The roller coaster is a popular amusement ride developed for amusement parks and modern theme parks.

## Introduction

LaMarcus Adna Thompson patented the first coasters on January 20, 1885. In essence a specialized railroad system, a roller coaster consists of a track that rises in designed patterns, sometimes with one or more inversions (such as vertical loops) that turn the rider briefly upside down. The track does not necessarily have to be a complete circuit, as shuttle roller coasters exhibit. Most roller coasters have multiple cars in which passengers sit and are restrained. Two or more cars hooked together are called a train. Some roller coasters, notably Wild Mouse roller coasters, run with single cars.

The combination of gravity and inertia, along with G-forces and centripetal acceleration give the body certain sensations as the coaster moves up, down, and around the track. The forces experienced by the rider are constantly changing, leading to feelings of joy in some riders and nausea in others. The basic principles of roller coaster mechanics have been known since 1665, and since then roller coasters have become a popular diversion.

## Roller Coaster Physics

Centripetal acceleration is not a true force, but rather the result of an object’s inertia, or resistance to change in direction, as the object moves in a circular path. The "force" points toward the center of the circle, but a roller coaster rider would feel centripetal acceleration as a force pushing them toward the outer edge of the car. The following equation expresses centripetal acceleration:

where ar is centripetal acceleration, v is velocity and r is the radius of the circular path. This shows that two roller coaster cars entering two loops of different size at the same speed will experience different acceleration forces: the car in the tighter loop will feel greater acceleration while the car in the wider loop will feel less acceleration.

Roller coasters have no engines. Instead, the car is pulled to the top of the first hill and released, at which point it rolls freely along the track without any external mechanical assistance for the remainder of the ride. The law of conservation of energy states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, thus, the purpose of the ascent of the first hill is to build up potential energy that will then be converted to kinetic energy as the ride progresses. The initial hill, or the lift hill, is the tallest in the entire ride. As the train is pulled to the top, it gains potential energy, as explained by the equation for potential energy below:

Ug = mgh

where Ug is potential energy, m is mass, g is acceleration due to gravity and h is height above the ground. Two trains of identical mass at different heights will therefore have different potential energies: the train at a greater height will have more potential energy than a train at a lower height. This means that the potential energy for the roller coaster system is greatest at the highest point on the track, or the top of the lift hill. As the roller coaster train begins its descent from the lift hill, the stored potential energy converts to kinetic energy, or energy of motion. The faster the train moves, the more kinetic energy the train gains, as shown by the equation for kinetic energy:

where K is kinetic energy, m is mass, and v is velocity. Because the mass of a roller coaster car remains constant, if the speed is increased, the kinetic energy must also increase. This means that the kinetic energy for the roller coaster system is greatest at the bottom of the largest downhill slope on the track, typically at the bottom of the lift hill. When the train begins to climb the next hill on the track, the train's kinetic energy is converted back into potential energy, decreasing the train's velocity. This process of converting kinetic energy to potential energy and back to kinetic energy continues with each hill. The energy is never destroyed, but is lost to friction between the car and track. Brakes ultimately bring the ride to a complete stop.

Inertia and gravity: When going around a roller coaster's vertical loop, the inertia that produces a thrilling acceleration force also keeps passengers in their seats. As the car approaches a loop, the direction of a passenger's inertial velocity points straight ahead at the same angle as the track leading up to the loop. As the car enters the loop, the track guides the car up, moving the passenger up as well. This change in direction creates a feeling of extra gravity as the passenger is pushed down into the seat.

At the top of the loop, the force of the car's acceleration pushes the passenger off the seat toward the center of the loop, while inertia pushes the passenger back into the seat. Gravity and acceleration forces push the passenger in opposite directions with nearly equal force, creating a sensation of weightlessness.

At the bottom of the loop, gravity and the change in direction of the passenger's inertia from a downward vertical direction to one that is horizontal push the passenger into the seat, causing the passenger to once again feel very heavy. Most roller coasters require passengers to wear a safety harness, but the forces exerted by most loop-the-loop coasters would keep passengers from falling out.

G-forces create the so-called "butterfly" sensation felt as a car goes down a hill. An acceleration of 1 standard gravity (9.8 m/s2) is the usual force of Earth’s gravitational pull exerted on a person while standing still. The measurement of a person's normal weight incorporates this gravitational acceleration. When a person feels weightless at the top of a loop or while going down a hill, they are in free fall. However, if the top of a hill is curved more narrowly than a parabola, riders will experience negative Gs and be lifted out of their seats, experiencing the so-called "butterfly" sensation.

Wooden and steel coasters work the same way, but they have different capacities to deliver excitement for thrill seekers. Because of the strength of their building materials, steel coasters have the highest drops, most loops, are faster, and can even be designed so that the coaster hangs below the track or the riders stand instead of sit.

Wooden coasters, however, are not as fast, not as high, and usually do not contain loops, but they provide a different kind of thrill. The beams and struts of a wooden coaster provide a solid support for cars and riders, and riders intellectually know the ride is safe, but the coaster's unsturdy appearance can provide a psychological thrill. Because their structures are fairly inflexible, wooden coasters tend to sway, adding to the thrill by giving riders different sensations than they would feel while traveling around a steel structure.

As better technology became available, engineers began to use computerized design tools to calculate the forces and stresses that the ride would subject passengers to. Computers are now used to design safe coasters with specially designed restraints and lightweight and durable materials. Today, tubular steel tracks and polyurethane wheels allow coasters to travel about 80 miles per hour (130 km/h), while even taller, faster, and more complex roller coasters continue to be built.

Source: Wikipedia (All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.)

Science Fair Projects Resources R
Engineering Resources R

Citation Guides, Style Manuals, Reference R
Safety Resources R R
Engineering Science Fair Books