Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Internal vs. External Forces

Internal vs. External Forces

There are a variety of ways to categorize all the types of forces. All the types of forces can be categorized as contact forces or as action-at-a-distance forces. Whether a force was categorized as an action-at-a-distance force was dependent upon whether or not that type of force could exist even when the objects were not physically touching. The force of gravity, electrical forces, and magnetic forces were examples of forces which could exist between two objects even when they are not physically touching. In this lesson, we will learn how to categorize forces based upon whether or not their presence is capable of changing an object's total mechanical energy. We will learn that there are certain types of forces, which when present and when involved in doing work on objects will change the total mechanical energy of the object. And there are other types of forces which can never change the total mechanical energy of an object, but rather can only transform the energy of an object from potential energy to kinetic energy (or vice versa). The two categories of forces are referred to as internal forces and external forces.

Forces can be categorized as internal forces or external forces. There are many sophisticated and worthy ways of explaining and distinguishing between internal and external forces. Many of these ways are commonly discussed at great length in physics textbooks. For our purposes, we will simply say that external forces include the applied force, normal force, tension force, friction force, and air resistance force. And for our purposes, the internal forces include the gravity forces, magnetic force, electrical force, and spring force.

Internal Forces

External Forces








The importance of categorizing a force as being either internal or external is related to the ability of that type of force to change an object's total mechanical energy when it does work upon an object. When net work is done upon an object by an external force, the total mechanical energy (KE+PE) that object is changed. If the work is positive work, then the object will gain energy. If the work is negative work, then the object will lose energy. The gain or loss in energy can be in the form of Potential Energy, kinetic energy, or both. Under such circumstances, the work which is done will be equal to the change in mechanical energy of the object. Because external forces are capable of changing the total mechanical energy of an object, they are sometimes referred to as nonconservative forces.

When the only type of force doing net work upon an object is an internal force (for example, gravitational and spring forces), the total mechanical energy (KE+PE) that object remains constant. In such cases, the object's energy changes form. For example, as an object is "forced" from a high elevation to a lower elevation by gravity, some of the potential energy of that object is transformed into kinetic energy. Yet, the sum of the kinetic and potential energies remain constant. When the only forces doing work are internal forces, energy changes forms - from kinetic to potential (or vice versa); yet the total amount of mechanical is conserved. Because internal forces are capable of changing the form of energy without changing the total amount of mechanical energy, they are sometimes referred to as conservative forces.

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