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  • Define nonconservative forces and explain how they affect mechanical energy.
  • Show how the principle of conservation of energy can be applied by treating the conservative forces in terms of their potential energies and any nonconservative forces in terms of the work they do.

Nonconservative forces and friction

Forces are either conservative or nonconservative. Conservative forces were discussed in Conservative Forces and Potential Energy . A nonconservative force    is one for which work depends on the path taken. Friction is a good example of a nonconservative force. As illustrated in [link] , work done against friction depends on the length of the path between the starting and ending points. Because of this dependence on path, there is no potential energy associated with nonconservative forces. An important characteristic is that the work done by a nonconservative force adds or removes mechanical energy from a system . Friction , for example, creates thermal energy that dissipates, removing energy from the system. Furthermore, even if the thermal energy is retained or captured, it cannot be fully converted back to work, so it is lost or not recoverable in that sense as well.

(a) A drawing of a happy face is erased diagonally from a point A to a point B. (b) A drawing of a happy face is erased in the shape of the letter u, but starting from the same point A and ending at the same point B.
The amount of the happy face erased depends on the path taken by the eraser between points A and B, as does the work done against friction. Less work is done and less of the face is erased for the path in (a) than for the path in (b). The force here is friction, and most of the work goes into thermal energy that subsequently leaves the system (the happy face plus the eraser). The energy expended cannot be fully recovered.

How nonconservative forces affect mechanical energy

Mechanical energy may not be conserved when nonconservative forces act. For example, when a car is brought to a stop by friction on level ground, it loses kinetic energy, which is dissipated as thermal energy, reducing its mechanical energy. [link] compares the effects of conservative and nonconservative forces. We often choose to understand simpler systems such as that described in [link] (a) first before studying more complicated systems as in [link] (b).

(a) A system is shown in three situations. First, a rock is dropped onto a spring attached to the ground. The rock has potential energy P E sub 0 at the highest point before it is dropped on the spring. In the second situation, the rock has fallen onto the spring and the spring is compressed and has potential energy P E sub s. And in the third situation, the spring pushes the rock into the air; then the rock has some kinetic and some potential energy, labeled as K E plus P E sub g prime. (b) A rock is at some height above the ground, having potential energy P E sub g, and as it hits the ground all of the rock’s energy is used to produce heat, sound, and deformation of the ground.
Comparison of the effects of conservative and nonconservative forces on the mechanical energy of a system. (a) A system with only conservative forces. When a rock is dropped onto a spring, its mechanical energy remains constant (neglecting air resistance) because the force in the spring is conservative. The spring can propel the rock back to its original height, where it once again has only potential energy due to gravity. (b) A system with nonconservative forces. When the same rock is dropped onto the ground, it is stopped by nonconservative forces that dissipate its mechanical energy as thermal energy, sound, and surface distortion. The rock has lost mechanical energy.

How the work-energy theorem applies

Now let us consider what form the work-energy theorem takes when both conservative and nonconservative forces act. We will see that the work done by nonconservative forces equals the change in the mechanical energy of a system. As noted in Kinetic Energy and the Work-Energy Theorem , the work-energy theorem states that the net work on a system equals the change in its kinetic energy, or W net = ΔKE size 12{W rSub { size 8{"net"} } =D"KE"} {} . The net work is the sum of the work by nonconservative forces plus the work by conservative forces. That is,

Questions & Answers

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Practice Key Terms 2

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Source:  OpenStax, College physics. OpenStax CNX. Jul 27, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11406/1.9
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