Friction plays a vital role in our everyday lives. We are, for instance, able to walk or drive a car due to the presence of friction. The frictional force is a result of the interaction between atoms and molecules. At the surface, two objects may seem very smooth, but at a molecular scale, there are many rough areas that cause friction.

Friction Friction

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    Sometimes, friction can be unwanted, and lubricants of different types are used to reduce it. For instance, in machines, where friction can wear out certain parts, oil-based lubricants are used to reduce it.

    What is friction?

    When an object is in motion or at rest on a surface or in a medium, such as air or water, there is a resistance that opposes its motion and tends to keep it at rest. This resistance is known as friction.

    Friction. Interaction between two surfaces. StudySmarter

    Figure 1. A visual representation of the interaction between two surfaces at a microscopic scale. Source: StudySmarter.

    Although two surfaces that are in contact may seem very smooth, at a microscopic scale, there are many peaks and troughs that result in friction. In practice, it is impossible to create an object that has an absolutely smooth surface. According to the law of the conservation of energy, no energy in a system is ever destroyed. In this case, friction produces heat energy, which is dissipated through the medium and the objects themselves.

    Friction Results from Interatomic Electric Forces

    Friction is a type of contact force, and as such, it results from interatomic electric forces. On a microscopic scale, the surfaces of objects are not smooth; they are made of minuscule peaks and crevices. When the peaks slide against and run into each other, the electron clouds around the atoms of each object try to push away from each other. There could also be molecular bonds that form between parts of the surfaces to create adhesion, which also fights against movement. All these electric forces put together compose the general friction force that opposes sliding.

    Static frictional force

    In a system, if all objects are stationary relative to an external observer, the frictional force produced between the objects is known as the static frictional force.

    As the name suggests, this is the friction force (fs) that is in action when the objects in interaction are static. As the frictional force is a force like any other, it is measured in Newtons. The direction of the friction force is in the opposite direction to that of the applied force. Consider a block of mass m and a force F acting on it, such that the block remains at rest.

    Friction. The forces acting on an object. StudySmarter

    Figure 2. All the forces that are acting on a mass lying on a surface. Source: StudySmarter.

    There are four forces acting on the object: the gravitational force mg, the normal force N, the static frictional force fs, and the applied force of magnitude F. The object will remain in equilibrium until the magnitude of the applied force is bigger than the frictional force. The frictional force is directly proportional to the normal force on the object. Hence, the lighter the object, the less the friction.

    \[f_s \varpropto N\]

    To remove the sign of proportionality, we have to introduce a proportionality constant, known as the coefficient of static friction, here denoted as μs.

    However, in this case, there will be an inequality. The magnitude of the applied force will increase to a point after which the object will start moving, and we no longer have static friction. Thus, the maximum value of static friction is μs⋅N, and any value less than this is an inequality. This can be expressed as follows:

    \[f_s \leq \mu_s N\]

    Here, the normal force is \(N = mg\).

    Kinetic frictional force

    As we saw earlier, when the object is at rest, the frictional force in action is static friction. However, when the applied force is greater than the static friction, the object is no longer stationary.

    When the object is in motion due to an external unbalanced force, the frictional force associated with the system is known as kinetic frictional force.

    At the point where the applied force exceeds the static frictional force, kinetic friction comes into action. As the name suggests, it is associated with the motion of the object. Kinetic friction does not increase linearly as the applied force is increased. Initially, the kinetic frictional force decreases in magnitude and then remains constant throughout.

    Kinetic friction can further be classified into three types: sliding friction, rolling friction, and fluid friction.

    When an object can freely rotate around an axis (a sphere on an inclined plane), the frictional force in action is known as rolling friction.

    When an object is undergoing motion in a medium such as water or air, the medium causes resistance which is known as fluid friction.

    Fluid here does not only mean liquids as gases are also considered fluids.

    When an object is not circular and can only undergo translational motion (a block on a surface), the friction produced when that object is in motion is called sliding friction.

    All three types of kinetic friction can be determined using a general theory of kinetic friction. Like static friction, kinetic friction is also proportional to the normal force. The proportionality constant, in this case, is called the coefficient of kinetic friction.

    \[f_k = \mu_k N\]

    Here, μk is the coefficient of kinetic friction, while N is the normal force.

    The values of μk and μs depend on the nature of the surfaces, with μk being generally less than μs. Typical values range from 0.03 to 1.0. It is important to note that the value of the coefficient of friction can never be negative. It may seem that an object with a greater area of contact will have a bigger coefficient of friction, but the weight of the object is evenly spread and so does not affect the coefficient of friction. See the following list of some typical coefficients of friction.

    Rubber on concrete0.71.0
    Steel on steel0.570.74
    Aluminium on steel0.470.61
    Glass on glass0.400.94
    Copper on steel0.360.53

    The geometric relation between static and kinetic friction

    Consider a block of mass m on a surface and an external force F applied parallel to the surface, which is constantly increasing until the block starts moving. We have seen how static friction and then kinetic friction come into action. Let us represent the frictional forces graphically as a function of the applied force.

    Friction. Static and kinetic friction relative to the applied force. StudySmarter

    Figure 3. Graphical representation of static and kinetic friction respective to the force applied. Source: StudySmarter.

    As discussed earlier, the force applied is a linear function of static friction, and it increases to a certain value, after which kinetic friction comes into action. The magnitude of kinetic friction decreases until a certain value is attained. The value of friction then remains almost constant with the increasing value of external force.

    Friction Force Calculation

    Friction is calculated using the following formula, with \(\mu\) as the coefficient of friction and FN as the normal force:

    \[|F_f| \leq \mu |F_n|\]

    Each force has units of Newtons, N. This formula shows that the magnitude of the friction force depends on the coefficient of friction, as we discussed above, as well as the magnitude of the normal force. As the coefficient of friction or normal force increases, the friction force increases. This intuitively makes sense - when we push a box, it's harder to push when the surface is rougher and when the box is heavier.

    Static Friction Equation

    The "equal to or less than sign" in the general equation above is specific to static friction. This is because if you push against a box and it doesn't move, the friction force will equal the force of your push (because without acceleration, the sum of the forces equals zero). So if you push with a 5N force, the friction force resisting the movement will be 5N; if you push with 10N and it still doesn't move, the friction force will be 10N. Therefore, we typically write the general equation for static friction like this:

    \[|F_s| \leq \mu_s |F_n|\]

    To find the maximum possible force you can apply without the box moving, or to just barely get the box to start moving, you would set the friction force equal to the coefficient of friction times the normal force:

    \[|F_{smax}| = \mu_s|F_n|\]

    Kinetic Friction Equation

    Since the object is already moving for kinetic friction to apply, kinetic friction can't be less than the coefficient of friction times the normal force. So the equation for kinetic friction is simply the following:

    \[|F_k| = \mu_k|F_n|\]

    Friction on an inclined plane

    Thus far, we have focused on objects on a horizontal surface. Now, let us consider an object at rest on an inclined plane, which forms an angle θ with the horizontal.

    Friction. Friction on an inclined plane. StudySmarter

    Figure 4. An object at rest on an inclined surface, with all the forces acting on it. Source: StudySmarter.

    Considering all the forces acting on the object, we find that the gravitational force, friction, and the normal force are all the forces that need to be taken into consideration. As the object is in equilibrium, these forces should cancel each other out.

    We can consider our Cartesian axes anywhere to make our calculations convenient. Let us imagine the axes along the inclined plane, as shown in figure 4. First, gravity is acting vertically downwards, so its horizontal component will be mg sinθ, which balances the static friction acting in the opposite direction. The vertical component of gravity will be mg cosθ, which is equal to the normal force acting on it. Writing the balanced forces algebraically, we get:

    \[f_s = mg \sin \theta_c\]

    \[N = mg \cos \theta\]

    When the incline angle is increased until the block is on the verge of slipping, the force of static friction has reached its maximum value μsN. The angle in this situation is called the critical angle θc. Substituting this, we get:

    \[\mu_s N = mg \sin \theta _c\]

    The normal force is:

    \[N = mg \cos \theta_c\]

    Now, we have two simultaneous equations. As we are looking for the value of the coefficient of friction, we take the ratio of both the equations and get:

    \[\frac{\mu_s N}{N} = \frac{mg \sin \theta_c}{mg \cos \theta_c} \qquad \mu_s = \tan \theta_c\]

    Here, θc is the critical angle. As soon as the angle of the inclined plane exceeds the critical angle, the block will start moving. So, the condition for the block to stay in equilibrium is:

    \[\theta \leq \theta_c\]

    When the incline exceeds the critical angle, the block will start accelerating downwards, and kinetic friction will come into action. It can thus be seen that the value of the coefficient of friction can be determined by measuring the angle of the inclination of the plane.

    A hockey puck, which is resting on the surface of a frozen pond, is pushed with a hockey stick. The puck remains stationary, but it is noticed that any more force will set it in motion. The mass of the puck is 200g, and the coefficient of friction is 0.7. Find the frictional force acting on the puck (g = 9.81 m/s2).

    As the puck will start moving with a little more force, the value of static friction will be maximum.

    \(f_s = \mu_s N\)

    \(N = mg\)

    This gives us:

    \(f_s =\mu_s mg\)

    Substituting all the values, we get:

    \(f_s = 0.7(0.2 kg) (9.81 m/s^2)\)

    \(f_s = 1.3734 N\)

    We have thus determined the friction force acting on the puck while it is at rest.

    Coefficient of Friction Symbol

    Different types of surfaces contribute to different amounts of friction. Think about how much harder it is to push a box across concrete than it is to push the same box across ice. The way we account for this difference is the coefficient of friction. The coefficient of friction is a unitless number dependent on the roughness (as well as other qualities) of the two interacting surfaces. Many experiments have been performed to determine a coefficient of friction for the interaction of common surfaces.

    The symbol for the coefficient of friction is the Greek letter mu: \(\mu\). To differentiate between static friction and kinetic friction, we can use a subscript "s" for static, \(\mu_s\),and "k" for kinetic, \(\mu_k\).

    How friction affects movement

    If an object is moving on a surface, it will begin to slow down due to friction. The greater the frictional force is, the more quickly the object will slow down. For instance, there is a very small amount of friction acting on the skates of ice skaters, allowing them to glide easily around an ice rink without significant deceleration. On the other hand, there is a very large amount of friction acting when you try to push an object over a rough surface - such as a table across a carpeted floor.

    Friction ice skater StudySmarter

    Figure 5. Ice skaters experience very little friction when moving on a smooth ice rink surface.

    It would be extremely difficult to move without friction; you probably know this already, because when you try to walk over ground covered in ice and attempt to push off against the ground behind you, your foot will slip from beneath you. When you walk, you push your foot against the ground in order to propel yourself forwards. The actual force pushing you forwards is the frictional force of the ground on your foot. Cars move in a similar way, the wheels push back on the road at the point on the bottom where they are in contact with it and the friction from the road surface pushes in the opposite direction, causing the car to move forward.

    Heat and friction

    If you rub your hands together, or against the surface of a desk, you will experience a frictional force. If you move your hand fast enough you will notice it becomes warm. Two surfaces will become heated as they are rubbed together and this effect will be greater if they are rough surfaces.

    The reason that two surfaces become heated when they experience friction is that the frictional force is doing work and converting energy from the kinetic energy store in the movement of your hands to the thermal energy store of your hands. As the molecules that make up your hand rub together, they gain kinetic energy and begin to vibrate. This kinetic energy associated with the random vibrations of molecules or atoms is what we refer to as thermal energy or heat.

    Air resistance can also cause objects to become very hot due to the thermal energy released. For instance, space shuttles are covered in heat-resistant material in order to protect them from burning up. This is due to the large increases in temperature as a result of air resistance they experience when they travel through the Earth's atmosphere.

    Damaged surfaces and friction

    Another effect of friction is that it can cause two surfaces to become damaged if they are easily deformed. This can actually be useful in some cases:

    When erasing a pencil mark from a piece of paper, the rubber will create friction by rubbing against the paper and a very thin layer of the top surface will be removed so that the mark is essentially erased.

    Terminal velocity

    One of the interesting effects of drag is terminal velocity. An example of this is an object falling from a height down to the earth. The object feels the gravitational force due to the earth and it feels an upwards force due to air resistance. As its speed increases, the frictional force due to air resistance also increases. When this force becomes large enough so that it is equal to the force due to gravity, the object will no longer be accelerating and will have reached its maximum speed - this is its terminal velocity. All objects would fall at the same rate if they did not experience air resistance.

    The effects of air resistance can also be seen in the example of the top speed of cars. If a car is accelerating with the maximum driving force that it can produce, the force due to air resistance will increase as the car moves faster. When the driving force is equal to the sum of the forces due to air resistance and friction with the ground, the car will have reached its top speed.

    Friction - Key takeaways

    • There are two types of friction: static friction and kinetic friction. They don’t come into action simultaneously but only exist independently.
    • Static friction is the frictional force in action while an object is at rest.
    • Kinetic friction is the frictional force in action when the object is in motion.
    • The coefficient of friction only depends on the nature of the surface.
    • On an inclined plane, the coefficient can be determined solely by the angle of inclination.
    • Typical values of the coefficient of friction do not exceed 1 and can never be negative.
    • Frictional forces are universal, and it is practically impossible to have a frictionless surface.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Friction

    What is friction?

    When two or more objects are in contact or surrounded by a medium, there is a resistive force that tends to oppose any motion. This is known as friction.

    What type of energy is produced by friction?

    Heat energy.

    What causes friction?

    Friction is caused by the interaction between molecules of different objects at a microscopic level.

    How can we reduce friction?

    Lubricants of various types are used to reduce friction.

    What are the three types of kinetic friction?

    The three types of kinetic friction are sliding friction, rolling friction, and fluid friction.

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