Mechanics and Function
The wheel is a device that enables efficient movement of an object across a surface where there is a force pressing the object to the surface. Common examples are a cart pulled by a horse, and the rollers on an aircraft flap mechanism.
Wheels are used in conjunction with axles; either the wheel turns on the axle, or the axle turns in the object body. The mechanics are the same in either case.
The low resistance to motion (compared to dragging) is explained as follows (refer to friction):
- the normal force at the sliding interface is the same.
- the sliding distance is reduced for a given distance of travel.
- the coefficient of friction at the interface is usually lower.
Bearings are used to help reduce friction at the interface. In the simplest and oldest case the bearing is just a round hole through which the axle passes (a "plain bearing").
- If a 100 kg object is dragged for 10 m along a surface with the coefficient of friction μ = 0.5, the normal force is 981 N and the work done (required energy) is (work=force x distance) 981 × 0.5 × 10 = 4905 joules.
- Now give the object 4 wheels. The normal force between the 4 wheels and axles is the same (in total) 981 N. Assume, for wood, μ = 0.25, and say the wheel diameter is 1000 mm and axle diameter is 50 mm. So while the object still moves 10 m the sliding frictional surfaces only slide over each other a distance of 0.5 m. The work done is 981 × 0.25 × 0.5 = 123 joules; the work done has reduced to 1/40 of that of dragging.
Additional energy is lost from the wheel-to-road interface. This is termed rolling resistance which is predominantly a deformation loss.
A wheel can also offer advantages in traversing irregular surfaces if the wheel radius is sufficiently large compared to the irregularities.
The wheel alone is not a machine, but when attached to an axle in conjunction with bearing, it forms the wheel and axle, one of the simple machines. A driven wheel is an example of a wheel and axle. Note that wheels pre-date driven wheels by about 6000 years.
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