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Using friction

Without friction, we would not be able to hold anything and everything would slide everywhere. Too much friction, however, slows movement and wears down the surfaces in contact.

Think of friction as grip. We use friction everyday, like when our shoes grip the ground so we can propel ourselves forward. If the ground is slippery, or we have very smooth soles, we find it difficult to walk because we have less of a grip on the ground.

A car has different types of friction working within it and on it. A car needs to overcome a certain amount of friction to move, but its tyres still need grip so that the car will not stray off the road. The brakes also use friction to control the deceleration of the car. Eventually, the parts that are subject to friction will wear down and need to be replaced.

Reducing friction

It is beneficial to reduce the friction between surfaces to make movement easier or reduce the wear and tear on a surface. There are a number of ways to reduce friction:

Make the surfaces smoother. Rough surfaces produce more friction and smooth surfaces reduce friction. Some swimmers wear suits to reduce underwater resistance. These suits mimic the smooth skin of sharks.

Lubrication is another way to make a surface smoother. A lubricant is a slippery substance designed to reduce the friction between surfaces. You might use oil to stop a door from squeaking - the oil reduces the friction in the hinge. Water can be used as a lubricant - think of how a floor becomes slippery after it has been mopped.

Make the object more streamlined. A streamline shape is one that allows air or water to flow around it easily, offering the least resistance. Compare a boxy old car with a new car that has a rounded shape, allowing it to move with less effort.

Reduce the forces acting on the surfaces. The stronger the forces acting on the surfaces, the higher the friction, so reducing the forces would reduce the friction. If you apply the handbrake when you try to drive a car, the car will have a lot of difficulty moving because of the force immobilising (stopping the movement of) the wheels. If you release the handbrake, the wheels will move more freely because there is no extra force acting on them.

Reduce the contact between the surfaces. Have you ever tried to roll a cube? Spheres are the best shape for reducing friction because very little of a spherical object is in contact with the other surface. Several types of wheels, such as skateboard wheels, contain small spheres called ball bearings to reduce the friction between the moving parts. You can witness the effect of ball bearings by comparing the friction between sliding a book on a table and then doing the same, but using marbles between the book and the surface of the table. Notice how the marbles act as ball bearings, reducing the friction.

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Question 1/5

1. What is an advantage of friction?

It allows us to grip things

It makes things slippery

It slows movement

It wears down surfaces