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Centrifugal Force Caused by Inertia

by Ron Kurtus (revised 11 December 2014)

When you swing an object around on a string or rope, you will feel a force pulling the object outward. This is called the centrifugal force and is caused by the inertia of the object, where it seeks to follow a straight-line path. It is also called a resistive force or an inertial force.

The centrifugal force is equal and opposite to the centripetal force that acts on the object causing it to move in a curved line.

Applications of centrifugal force include swinging a ball and amusement park rides. The equation for the centrifugal force is similar to that for centripetal force.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions. Useful tool: Units Conversion



Centrifugal force opposite centrifugal force

According to Newton's Law of Inertia, an object in motion tends to follow a straight line. Applying a sideways force on the object can overcome the inertia and cause the object to take a curved path. That force is called a centripetal force.

(See Centripetal Force for more information.)

Newton's Third Law or Action-Reaction Law states that for every applied force, there is an equal and opposite force. In other words, when you apply a force on a rope in swinging an object around you, you will feel an equal and opposite force pulling the object away from you. This is the centrifugal force.

Note: Many Physics sources say that centrifugal force is a fictitious or pseudo (false) force. This is contrary to the fact the you can feel the force.

Also, they seem to have forgotten Newton's Third Law. If they would have applied the Law, they would have seen that the centrifugal force is equal and opposite the centripetal force.

Centrifugal force is a resistive or inertial force in that it resists changing the direction or velocity of the object.

Examples of centrifugal force

There are various examples of applications of the centrifugal force.

Spinning disk

If you place an object on a disk and start it spinning, the friction holding the object on the disk is the centripetal force causing the object to move in a curved path.

Once the disk spins fast enough, the centrifugal inertial force can become greater than the centripetal friction force holding the object in place. The object will then fly off in a straight line.

Ball flies off spinning disk in straight line due to centrifugal force overcoming friction

Ball flies off spinning disk in straight line
due to centrifugal force overcoming friction

Round-Up ride

A related example is the amusement park ride, Round-Up, which consists of a circular platform that has a vertical cage-like wall around the edge.

Centrifugal force holds people on walls in carnvial ride

Centrifugal force holds people on walls in carnival ride

When the platform spins at a high enough rate, the centrifugal inertial force pushes the riders against the wall, holding them in place as the platform changes directions.

Although the riders feel a force pushing them against the wall, there is no real force or agent that is doing the pushing. It is simply an effect of inertia.

Roller coaster ride

Another amusement park ride that shows the centrifugal force is the roller coaster. When the roller coaster goes over the curved top of the tracks, you feel the centrifugal force pulling you upward. Likewise, at the lower curved part of the tracks, you feel the force pushing you downward.

Water stays in swinging bucket

There is also a trick where you take a pail half-full of water and swing it on a rope in a vertical circle, such that the water stays in the bucket, even when directly above you by centrifugal force.

Equation for centrifugal force

The equation for the outward or centrifugal force due to inertia of an object following a curved path is:

F = mv2/R

where

This equation is similar to that of the centripetal force causing an object to follow a curved path.

Centrifugal force is in the opposite direction of centripetal force

Centrifugal force is in the opposite direction
of centripetal force

Thus, if the centripetal force causing an object to go in a circular path is 25 newtons, the centrifugal force felt will be 25 newtons.

Summary

A centrifugal force is the outward inertial force on an object moving along a curved path. An object will move in a curved path provided some force is preventing it from moving in a straight line, which is the centripetal force.

Since for every force, there is an opposite and equal force, the opposite of the centripetal force is the centrifugal force.

The equation for the centrifugal inertial force, as a function of mass, velocity and radius is:

F = mv2/R.


Work beyond your abilities


Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials

Websites

Centrifugal Force - Wikipedia

Centrfugal Force - Physics Classroom

Centrifugal Force - HowStuffWorks

Physics Resources

Books

The Science of Forces by Steve Parker; Heinemann (2005) $29.29 - Projects with experiments with forces and machines

Glencoe Science: Motion, Forces, and Energy, by McGraw-Hill; Glencoe/McGraw-Hill (2001) $19.32 - Student edition (Hardcover)

Top-rated books on Physics of Force


Questions and comments

Do you have any questions, comments, or opinions on this subject? If so, send an email with your feedback. I will try to get back to you as soon as possible.


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