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# Energy in a Roller Coaster Ride

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Interactive

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Size: 20.0 KB

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Source: WGBH Educational Foundation

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This interactive roller coaster ride produced for Teachers' Domain illustrates the relationship between potential and kinetic energy. As the coaster cars go up and down the hills and around the loop of the track, a pie chart shows how energy is transformed back and forth between gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy.

Background Essay

Although roller coasters have changed quite a bit since the ride first became popular, the basic design principles remain the same. Whether the ride consists of an old wooden track with a few hills and turns, or a modern steel track with a variety of corkscrews and loops, all roller coasters rely on the conservation of energy.

The law of conservation of energy states that within a closed system, energy can change form, but it cannot be created or destroyed. In other words, the total amount of energy remains constant. On a roller coaster, energy changes from potential to kinetic energy and back again many times over the course of a ride.

Kinetic energy is energy that an object has as a result of its motion. All moving objects possess kinetic energy, which is determined by the mass and speed of the object. Potential energy is the energy an object has as a result of its position. Potential energy is stored energy that has not yet been released. Gravitational potential energy is potential energy that results from an object's position in a gravitational field, and is equal to the object's weight multiplied by its height. For example, a book placed on a shelf possesses gravitational potential energy because of Earth's gravity. If the book were moved to a higher shelf, it would gain potential energy.

For most roller coasters, the gravitational potential energy of the cars at the peak of the first hill determines the total amount of energy that is available for the rest of the ride. Traditionally, the coaster cars are pulled up the first hill by a chain; as the cars climb, they gain potential energy. At the top of the hill, the cars have a great deal of gravitational potential energy, equal to the cars' weight multiplied by the height of the hill. When the cars are released from the chain and begin coasting down the hill, potential energy transforms into kinetic energy until they reach the bottom of the hill. As the cars ascend the next hill, some kinetic energy is transformed back into potential energy. Then, when the cars descend this hill, potential energy is again changed to kinetic energy. This conversion between potential and kinetic energy continues throughout the ride.

In reality, the conversion between potential and kinetic energy (both are forms of mechanical energy) is not perfect. The force of friction acts on the moving cars, decreasing the total amount of mechanical energy in the system. The mechanical energy is not lost, however. It is transformed into thermal energy, which can be detected as an increase in the temperature of the roller coaster's track and car wheels. Because of friction between the coaster cars and the track (not to mention air resistance as the cars move forward at great speed), the amount of mechanical energy available decreases throughout the ride, and that is why the first hill of a roller coaster must always be the tallest.

Discussion Questions

• Think of an example from everyday life where potential energy is transformed into kinetic energy, or vice versa. Draw a diagram that illustrates the transformation, using the interactive activity as an example. Then describe the transformation. For example: When I carry a sled to the top of a snowy hill, the potential energy of the sled increases. As I stand with my sled at the top of the hill, the kinetic energy is zero and the potential energy is at its maximum. As I slide down the hill, the potential energy of the sled decreases and its kinetic energy increases.
• Imagine you are making an animation of a roller coaster with a pie chart representing the total amount of potential and kinetic energy in the system. What are the cars doing as the section representing kinetic energy increases in size?
• The roller coaster in this interactive is a model. In real life, not all of the potential energy of the coaster cars is converted to kinetic energy and back again; some mechanical energy is converted to thermal energy. Describe how mechanical energy gets converted to thermal energy along the track. How does this conversion affect the potential energy and kinetic energy during the ride?

Standards

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