Mechanics and function
- 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. This energy is also lowered by the use of a wheel (in comparison to dragging) because the net force on the contact point between the road and the wheel is almost perpendicular to the ground, and hence, generates an almost zero net work. This depends on the nature of the ground, of the material of the wheel, its inflation in the case of a tire, the net torque exerted by the eventual engine, and many other factors.
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, themselves an evolution of using round logs as rollers to move a heavy load—a practice going back in pre-history so far, it has not been dated.