Believe it or not, snowboarding is a study in potential and kinetic energy. The athletes who maximize both kinds of energy are the ones on the medal podium at the Vancouver Olympics.
Twelve years ago, snowboarding made its debut as an Olympic sport. The sport isn’t just about crazy lingo, going fast and jumping high. The athletes use the laws of gravity to build speed and keep their balance. They also use physics to gain speed and height in jumps.
The physics of snowboarding uses dynamic balance. When the snowboarder is in motion moving up and down the ramps, their balance is different than if they were just going down a slope.
As gravity pulls the snowboarders down the halfpipe, they gain speed. At the same time, they are being pushed against the sides by contact forces.
Snowboarders push back against the G-forces and build speed by pumping their legs up and down. By standing up against the extra forces in the curve, snowboarders add to their kinetic energy – the energy of motion. It gives them the speed they need to get air off the rim. The faster they go, the higher they go.
The higher they go, the more points they can get and the better tricks they can do.
A snowboarder starting their ride down the halfpipe has potential energy. Potential energy is stored energy in an object. For example, a stretched bow has potential energy. When the bow is in its usual position and not drawn, it does not have potential energy.
As a snowboarder moves down the side of the pipe, potential energy gets converted into kinetic energy. The kinetic energy of an object is the energy it possesses because of its motion. When they jump, the kinetic energy is converted back into potential energy.
Gravity slows them down in the air, so they lose kinetic energy. At the height of their jump, the snowboarders are at their maximum potential energy.
One more factor in achieving max speed – the height of the halfpipe. The taller the pipe, the more gravitational energy a snowboarder stores at the top of the rim, the more potential energy they gain. The Super Pipe in Vancouver is the highest ever at 22 feet high.
Get more information from NBCOlympics.com and the National Science Foundation. Lesson plan available on Snowboarding and the Conservation of Energy at NBCLearn.com.