If your kids are fans of roller coasters, knowing the physics it takes to make them so exciting might just lead your children to swap a video game controller for a research notebook. While most people tend to associate high speeds with strong motors, roller coasters rely heavily on physics alone, motor or not.
Introducing the Valravn
The Valravn is a Cedar Point feature, and it’s gaining a lot of interest from those who want to explore their knowledge of physics. That’s because this roller coaster uses the momentum created from the very first drop to keep it moving for the rest of the ride.
The Valravn reaches its first crest of 66 meters and uses that crest to propel it the rest of the time that the ride goes on. In fact, if it weren’t for the brakes on the coaster, it simply wouldn’t stop at all until it hit another crest. Plummeting from 66 meters at a 90 degree angle, by the time the ride reaches the top, it has enough stored potential energy to make the ride an adrenaline rush from the crest right until it comes to a stop.
Today’s Roller Coasters
The hardest part about riding a roller coaster is having the patience to make it to the top of the first big crest. After that it’s nothing but thrills, and for that you can thank gravity. Even so, the materials used today are much different from those in the past. In fact, roller coasters from the past wouldn’t be able to reach the same speeds as the ones today, simply because of their materials.
Roller coasters rely on stored gravitational energy. In short, it’s the energy that builds up, as an object gets higher. The force of gravity is always there and, until it is used, it is called potential or stored energy. By calculating the mass of an object combined with the height and angle of descent, physicists are able to determine exactly what speeds can be reached. However, those speeds depend on the materials as well.
In the past, roller coasters were made of wood. All you have to do is run your hand across a piece of wood and then run it across a piece of metal to see which one is rougher. The rougher object is going to offer the most friction, a force that works against the potential energy, effectively slowing an object down. Since wood generates more friction than steel, it isn’t possible to get the same results from a wooden roller coaster designed exactly the same as a steel one.
Can roller coasters go even faster than they do today? Certainly. The issue isn’t whether or not they can, but whether or not they should. The same physicist who designs a roller coaster in his or her scientific notebook has to consider g force and the dangers that come with it. The speed of the coaster is only limited by its height. It’s the human body that may not be able to withstand not just the speed, but the sudden onset of the speed.