Roller coaster Physics

Let’s take a look at how roller coasters help to demonstrate the Law of Conservation of Energy.

When the roller coaster ride begins, the coaster is pulled up a hill by a motor.  Once it reaches the top of the hill, it has the MAXIMUM amount of gravitational potential energy it’ll have for the entire ride.  Since in a closed system, energy cannot be created nor destroyed, the coaster has to rely on the initial amount of GPE.  You’ll notice that the first hill on a roller coaster is always the tallest.  If the 2nd hill is taller than the 1st hill, the coaster won’t have energy to reach the top.  Once the roller coaster starts down that first hill, GPE is being converted into kinetic energy and some thermal energy due to friction between the wheels and the track.  The conversions go back and forth until you reach the end of the ride and most of the energy has been converted into thermal energy.

In this animation, you can see how energy is being converted throughout the ride.  The only thing this doesn’t show is what’s going on thermal energy.


Here a few fun roller coaster simulations.  Some are very simple and others calculate g-forces, and velocity.

Have fun!

Coaster: This simulation lets you change the height of the hills, amount of gravity, speed, and friction.  It will show you how the roller coaster car will run on the track and if you go too fast, the cart will fly off!

Rollercoaster Designer: This simulation allows you change the height and steepness of the hills.  It measures the G-forces and the speed.  There is also a little “South-Park”-like character in the corner that represents a passenger.  It will show and tell you if the g-forces are too intense and you end up knocking out the passenger.  As the levels progress, the design challenges are harder.

Discovery Kids Build your own roller coaster: This game is pretty simple.  Add pre-designed features to create your own roller coaster.  When you run it, you get to hear screaming sounds and there’s a “Fear-o-meter!”

Fantasy Rollercoaster: Okay, so this is just a game.  You control the rollercoaster’s speed and you try not to kill you passengers.  Not really physics, but kinda fun anyway.


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