System Involving a Pulley and Inclined Surface

This topic is part of the HSC Physics course under the section Forces, Acceleration and Energy.

HSC Physics Syllabus

  • explore the concept of net force and equilibrium in one-dimensional and simple two-dimensional contexts using: (ACSPH050) 

– algebraic addition 
– vector addition 
– vector addition by resolution into components 
  • solve problems or make quantitative predictions about resultant and component forces by applying the following relationships: 

– `F_{AB} = -F_{BA}` 

– `F_x=Fcosθ`, `F_y=Fsinθ`  

Systems Involving Pulleys and Inclined Surface

Treating Multiple Masses As A Single Mass

In some HSC Year 11 physics problems, it can be advantageous to consider a system of multiple masses as a single entity. This simplification often makes it easier to apply the principles of motion and conservation laws.

To treat multiple masses in a system as one mass, you should:

1. Combine the Masses: Add up the individual masses to get a total mass. This is the equivalent mass of the system.

2. Analyse the System: Apply Newton's laws or conservation laws to the entire system rather than to individual parts.

For example, if you are using Newton's second law, F = ma, the force (F) is the net external force acting on the system, the mass (m) is the total mass of the system, and the acceleration (a) is the common acceleration of the entire system.

    3. Define Directions: In many cases, masses in a system may move in different directions or axes. Determine which direction will be positive and which will be negative before writing equations.

    4. Consider Internal Forces: When analysing the system as a whole, internal forces (like the tension between connected masses) are not included in the force calculation. This is because they occur in equal and opposite pairs and therefore cancel out according to Newton's third law. Even if internal forces such as tension are included in the equation, they will cancel out algebraically. 

    By treating the system of multiple masses as a single mass, you can often simplify your analysis. However, it's important to remember that this method is not always applicable or helpful, especially if you need to find quantities specific to individual masses (like tension in a rope between two masses).

    System Involving an Inclined Surface and Pulley Example

    Consider two masses m and hanging from a frictionless pulley system as shown. M rests on a frictionless surface inclined at an angle θ, and m is hanging from the pulley system. 


    masses on inclined surface an tied to a pulley


    The two masses must move in the same direction with equal acceleration in order to maintain the tension in the rope between them. If M moves down the slope, m must move upward; vice versa. 

    The acceleration of each mass is given by


    $$a = \frac{F_{net}}{m_{total}}$$


    The net force is sum of forces acting on m and M which can be identified by drawing a free body diagram.


    masses on a inclined surface and pulley


    Let's define the downward direction of m as positive and upward direction as negative. This means the positive direction for M would be up the slope, and the negative direction for M would be down the slope. The converse definition could also be used. 

    Since M is on an inclined surface, the component of its weight force parallel to the surface acts in the opposite direction to the tension force. Learn more about how to resolve force components on an inclined surface.


    $$F_{\parallel} = mg \sin{\theta}$$


    $$a = \frac{Mg - T + T - mg\sin{\theta}}{m + M}$$


    $$a = \frac{Mg - mg\sin{\theta}}{m + M}$$


    In this scenario, the magnitude and direction of acceleration depends on m and M as well as the angle θ

    A worked example can be found in the video above.

    Inclined Surface with Friction

    In most cases, a mass would be moving on a surface with friction. The direction of friction depends on net motion of the multi-mass system. When the mass on the inclined surface moves up the slope, the frictional force acts down the slope. Conversely, when this mass moves down the slop, the frictional force acts up the slope. 

    A worked example is demonstrated in the video above.