The Fascination of Roller Coaster Engineering
There are few things in the world more thrilling than the rush you feel in the pit of your stomach while riding one of the world’s biggest roller coasters. And that rush of adrenaline is exactly what the roller coaster was designed for. Whether wood or steel, engineers are responsible for the thrill and safety of the ride.
Wooden or Steel?
The primary difference between wooden and steel roller coasters is looping or non-looping. Generally speaking, wooden roller coasters are non-looping and not as tall or fast. However, they do have one advantage: they sway more, making for a more thrilling ride. Steel roller coasters on the other hand allow for more looping, higher and steeper hills, greater drops and rolls, and much faster speeds.
The engineering behind a roller coaster is well thought out and designed to last for years. No wonder they have been around for more than a century! The physics behind roller coasters is captivating too. Roller coasters use stored mechanical energy rather than an engine to operate. Generally, a lift motor yields stored energy when lifting the train to the top of a hill. The higher the train is lifted, the more stored energy is build up and the larger amount of active energy the train has when it is dropped. Thus, when the train is dropped, the stored energy converts into active energy and propels the train down the hill and safely around the twists and turns.
Ever wonder how a roller coaster can make it around a sharp turn without falling off the track? It has to do with simple physics. Engineers calculate the velocity and height of the roller coaster in order to successfully complete the turn. And of course it has to do with the way the roller coaster is built to. One of the most important aspects of every roller coaster is the structure. Most engineers use the triangle, which is the strongest shape ever created because no matter where a force pushes on it, it will not shift the shape.
Equally as important is the foundation of the roller coaster. Because a roller coaster weighs so much and the gravitational forces acting on the ride, it exerts a tremendous of force on the foundation. For that reason, the foundation the roller coaster is made of reinforced concrete with iron rods inside of it. This combination of concrete and iron makes for a very sturdy foundation—and ultimately a safe ride.
The track is also a very important aspect of the roller coaster. Ideally, the track must be able to withstand the weight of the coaster and also positive and negative forces from it. A recent development in wooden roller coasters is Intamin’s use of the prefabricated track. Essentially this design applies the principles of a steel roller coaster to manufacturing the wood. This design makes for the smoothest of rides, even more so than any traditional wooden roller coaster.