Rockin' Roller Coaster Physics

Energy is an unusual concept in physics. Physics defines energy as the ability to do Work. Hyperphysics explains the concept of Energy as a “currency” of work:

Energy is the capacity to do work; You must have energy to do work, it is like the currency for performing work. To do 100J of work, you must expend 100J of energy.

Energy can be in many types – there is the energy of movement (Kinetic Energy), and energy of sound (Sound Energy), Light Energy, Heat Energy, Electric Energy and so on. There is another type of Energy, Potential Energy. This is “Energy waiting to happen”, or stored energy. Some examples of this are Gravitational Potential Energy and Elastic Potential Energy.

What do we mean by Potential Energy (Stored Energy or “Energy waiting to Happen”)? Well the best answer to that involves a concept called Conservation of Energy, which states:

Energy in a closed system can neither be created nor destroyed, it merely changes forms.

This is actually a complicated concept. It does not mean that objects cannot lose a type of energy, i.e. objects cannot lose kinetic energy, but that if they do lose one type of energy they must gain another type of energy. For example, an object shot upwards gradually slows down (thus losing kinetic energy), but as it does, it gains gravitational potential energy – it has energy ‘stored’ by its position above the surface. If it were to be stopped at the maximum height (for example by sticking to a ceiling), it could later fall, and thus gain kinetic energy again. The kinetic energy it had was “stored” until it began to fall again.

This transfer of energy is a critical concept in Roller Coasters as they continually transfer energy between kinetic and gravitational potential as they ascend and descend on the track. Here is a little game which you can have some fun with, exploring transfer of energy:


The physics is somewhat less than accurate, but it does explore some of the principles. You will notice that you must have the first hill to be the highest, as that is the maximum total energy in the system. The following links provide some more accurate simulations to explore the concepts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

And last, a little movie – about the physics of falling (and being caught by Spiderman) and crashing.


Practice Test (energy-momentum-test-ammended) (& energy-momentum-test-solutions)

See you in Class!

Explore posts in the same categories: Physics

3 Comments on “Rockin' Roller Coaster Physics”

  1. Danny Dai Says:

    Hello,Mr Grichiting.Thanks for your outstanding post.But the videos cannot be showed.Could you fix it.Thanks.

  2. Mr G Says:

    Hi Danny,

    Everything appears to load for me – the Roller Coaster game does take a while – it is a large file with no pre-loader. Can anyone else confirm that it doesn’t load for them (give it 5 minutes!)


  3. […] Motion: XUVAT equations, Centre of mass, Energy transformations, Basic […]

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