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Physics of

Bridges
Norman Kwong
Physics 409D
Forces
 Before we take a look at bridges, we
must first understand what are forces.

 So, what is a force?

 A force is a push or a pull

 How can we describe forces?

 Lets a take a look at Newton’s law
Newton’s Laws
 Sir Isaac Newton helped create the three laws
of motion
 Newton’s First law
 When the sum of the forces acting on a particle is
zero, its velocity is constant. In particular, if the
particle is initially stationary, it will remain
stationary.

 “an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted

upon”
Newton’s Laws
Continued
 Newton’s Second law
 A net force on an object will accelerate it—that is,
change its velocity. The acceleration will be
proportional to the magnitude of the force and in
the same direction as the force. The proportionality
constant is the mass, m, of the object.

 “F = mass * acceleration”
Newton’s Laws
Continued
 Newton’s Third law
 The forces exerted by two particles on each
other are equal in magnitude and opposite in
direction

 “for every action, there is an equal and opposite

reaction”
So what do the laws tell
us?
 Looking at the second law we get Newton’s
famous equation for force: F=ma m is
equal to the mass of the object and a is the
acceleration
 Units of force are Newtons
 A Newton is the force required to give a mass of one
kilogram and acceleration of one metre per second
squared (1N=1 kg m/s2)
So what do the laws tell
us?
 However, a person
standing still is still
being accelerated
 Gravity is an
acceleration that
constantly acts on you
 F=mg where g is the
acceleration due to
gravity
So what do the laws tell
us?
 Looking at the third law of motion
 “for every action, there is a equal and opposite
reaction”
 So what does this mean?
 Consider the following diagram
 A box with a force due to gravity
So what do the laws tell
us?
 “for every action, there is an
equal and opposite reaction”
 A force is being exerted on the
ground from the weight of the
box. Therefore the ground must
also be exerting a force on the
box equal to the weight of the
box
 Called the normal force or FN
So what do the laws tell
us?
 From the first law:
 An object at rest will
stay at rest unless
acted upon
 This means that the
sums of all the forces
but be zero.
 Lets look back at our
diagram
The idea of equilibrium

 The object is stationary, therefore all the

forces must add up to zero
 Forces in the vertical direction: FN and Fg
 There are no horizontal forces
The idea of equilibrium

 But FN is equal to – Fg (from Newton’s third law)

 Adding up the forces we get FN + Fg = – Fg + Fg = 0
 The object is said to be in equilibrium when the sums of the forces
are equal to zero
Equilibrium
 Another important aspect of being in equilibrium
is that the sum of torques must be zero
 What is a torque?
 A torque is the measure of a force's tendency to
produce torsion and rotation about an axis.
 A torque is defined as τ=DF where D is the
perpendicular distance to the force F.
 A rotation point must also be chosen as well.
Torques
 Torques cause an
object to rotate
 We evaluate torque by
which torques cause
the object to rotate
clockwise or counter
clockwise around the
chosen rotation point
But what if the force isn’t
straight?
 In all the previous diagrams, the forces
have all been perfectly straight or they
have all been perpendicular to the object.

 But what if the force was at an angle?

Forces at an Angle
 If the force is at an angle, we can think of the force as a triangle,
with the force being the hypotenuse
Forces at an Angle
 To get the vertical
component of the
force, we need to use
trigonometry (also
known as the x-
component)
 The red portion is the
vertical part of the
angled force (also
known as the y-
component
 Θis the angle between
the force and it’s
horizontal part
■ To calculate the vertical part we take the
sin of the force
■ Fvertical =F * sin (Θ)
■ Lets do a quick sample calculation
■ Assume Θ=60o and F=600N
■ Fvertical = 600N * sin (60o) = 519.62N
Forces at an Angle
■ Likewise, we can do
the calculation of the
horizontal (the blue)
portion by taking the
cosine of the angle
■ Fhorizontal = F * cos (Θ)
■ Fhorizontal
= 600N * cos
(60o) =300N
Bridges
 Now that we have a rough understanding of forces, we can
try and relate them to the bridge.
 A bridge has a deck, and supports
 Supports are what holds the bridge up
 Forces exerted on a support are called reactions
 Loads are the forces acting on the bridge
Bridges
 A bridge is held up by the reactions exerted by
its supports and the loads are the forces
exerted by the weight of the object plus the
bridge itself.
Beam Bridge
 Consider the
following bridge

 The beam bridge

 One of the simplest
bridges
What are the forces acting
on a beam bridge?

 So what are the forces?

 There is the weight of the bridge
 The reaction from the supports
Forces on a beam bridge

■ Here the red represents the weight of the bridge and the blue
represents the reaction of the supports
■ Assuming the weight is in the center, then the supports will
each have the same reaction
Forces on a beam bridge

 Lets try to add the forces

 Horizontal forces (x-direction): there are none
 Vertical forces (y-direction): the force from the
supports and the weight of the bridge
Forces on a beam bridge

 Lets assume the bridge has a weight of 600N.

 From the sums of forces Fy = -600N + 2 Fsupport =0
 Doing the calculation, the supports each exert a force of
300N
 To meet the other condition of equilibrium, we look at
the torques (τ=DF) with the red point being our
rotation point
 τ= (1m)*(600N)-(2m)*(600N)+(3m)*(600N) = 0
Limitations
 With all bridges, there is only a certain weight or
load that the bridge can support

 This is due to the materials and the way the forces

are acted upon the bridge
What is happening?
 There are 2 more other forces to consider in a
bridge.
 Compression forces and Tension forces.
 Compression is a force that acts to compress or
shorten the thing it is acting on
 Tension is a force that acts to expand or lengthen
the thing it is acting on
 There is compression at the top of the bridge and
there is tension at the bottom of the bridge
 The top portion ends up being shorter and the
lower portion longer
 A stiffer material will resist these forces and thus
Bridge Jargon
 Buckling is what happens to a bridge when the
compression forces overcome the bridge’s ability
to handle compression. (crushing of a pop can)
■ Snapping is what happens to a bridge when the
tension forces overcome the bridge’s ability to
handle tension. (breaking of a rubber band)
■ Span is the length of the bridge
How can deal with these
new forces?
 If we were to dissipate the forces out, no
one spot has to bear the brunt of the
concentrated force.

 In addition we can transfer the force from

an area of weakness to an area of
strength, or an area that is capable of
handling the force
A natural form of
dissipation
 The arch bridge is one of
the most natural bridges.

 It is also the best example

of dissipation
 In a arch bridge, everything is under compression
 It is the compression that actually holds the bridge up
 In the picture below you can see how the compression is being
dissipated all the way to the end of the bridge where eventually all
the force gets transferred to the ground
Compression in a Arch
 Here is another look at the
compression
 The blue arrow here
represents the weight of
the section of the arch, as
well as the weight above
 The red arrows represent
the compression
Arches
 Here is one more look at
the compression lines of
an arch
A Stronger Bridge
 Another way to increase the strength of
a bridge is to add trusses
 What are trusses??
 A truss is a rigid framework designed to
support a structure
 How does a truss help the bridge?
 A truss adds rigidity to the beam, therefore,
increasing it’s ability to dissipate the
compression and tension forces
So what does a truss
look like?
 A truss is essentially a triangular structure.
 Consider the following bridge (Silver Bridge, South
Alouette River, Pitt Meadows BC )
Trusses

 We can clearly see the triangular structure built on top of a basic

beam bridge.
 But how does the truss increase the ability to handle forces?
 Remember a truss adds rigidity to the beam, therefore, increasing it’s ability to
dissipate the compression and tension forces
Trusses
 Lets take a look at a simple truss and how
 Lets take a look at the forces here
 Assumptions: all the triangles are equal lateral
triangles, the angle between the sides is 60o
 Lets see how the forces are spread out
■Sum of torques = (1m)*(-400N) + (3m)*(-800N)
+(4m)*E=0
■E=700N
■Sum of forces = AY + E - 400N - 800N
■Ay=500N
 Now that we know how the forces are laid out, lets
take a look at what is happening at point A
 Remember that all forces are in equilibrium, so they
■ Sum of Fx=TAC + TAB cos 60o = 0
■ Sum of Fy=TAB sin 60o +500N = 0
■ Solving for the two above equations we get
■ TAB = -577N TAC = 289N
Compression and
Tension
■TAB = -577N
■TAC = 289N
■The negative force
means that there is a
compression force
and a positive force
means that there is a
tension force
 Lets take a look at point B
■Sum of Fx = TBD + TBC cos 60o + 577 cos 60o= 0
■Sum of Fy = -400N + 577sin60o –TBC sin60o=0
■Once again, solving the two equations
■TBC =115N TBD =-346N
Tension and
Compression
■TBC =115N
■TBD =-346N
The negative force
■The
means that there is
a compression force
and a positive force
means that there is
a tension force
Forces in a Truss
 If we calculated the rest of the forces acting on the various points
of our truss, we will see that there is a mixture of both
compression and tension forces and that these forces are spread
out across the truss
Limitations of a Truss
 As we can see from our demo, the
truss can easily hold up weights, but
there is a limitation.

 Truss bridges are very heavy due to

the massive amount of material
involved in its construction.
Limitations of a Truss
 In order to holder larger loads, the
trusses need to be larger, but that
would mean the bridge gets heavier
 Eventually the bridge would be so
heavy, that most of the truss work is
used to hold the bridge up instead of
Suspension Bridge
■Due to the limitations of
the truss bridge type,
another bridge type is
needed for long spans
■A suspension bridge can
withstand long spans as
well as a fairly decent
How Suspension Bridge
Works
A suspension bridge uses the tension of
■A
cables to hold up a load. The cables are
kept under tension with the use of
anchorages that are held firmly to the Earth.
Suspension Bridge
■The deck is suspended from the cables and
the compression forces from the weight of
the deck are transferred the towers.
Because the towers are firmly in the Earth,
the force gets dissipated into the ground.
Suspension Bridge
■The supporting cables that are connected to the
anchorages experience tension forces. The cables
stretch due to the weight of the bridge as well as the
Anchorages
■ Each supporting cable is
actually many smaller cables
bound together
■ At the anchorage points, the
main cable separates into its
smaller cables
■ The tension from the main
cable gets dispersed to the
smaller cables
■ Finally the tensional forces
are dissipated into the
ground via the anchorage
Suspension Bridge Cable
■Here is a cross
section picture
of what a main
cable of a
suspension
bridge looks like
A Variation on the
Suspension
■A cable stayed bridge is a variation of the
suspension bridge.
■Like the suspension bridge, the cable stayed
bridge uses cables to hold the bridge and
Comparison
Forces in a Cable Stayed
■A cable stayed
bridge uses the cable
to hold up the deck
■The tension forces in
the cable are
transferred to the
towers where the
tension forces
become compression
forces
Forces in a Cable Stayed
■Lets take a quick look at the forces
at one of the cable points.
Forces in a Cable Stayed
The “Lifting force”
■The
holds up the bridge
The higher the angle
■The
that the cable is
attached to the deck,