Conservation of Linear Momentum

Written by Giuseppe; Giuseppe is available for private tutoring.

Conservation of Linear Momentum

Almost everybody can easily stop a ball thrown at 40 km/h in a tenth of a second but nobody can do the same with a car travelling at 40 km/h.

It’s the product of mass and change in velocity that really matters when it comes to evaluating the forces exerted on a body, in order to change its motion.

Definition of momentum

It is convenient to define a physical quantity called momentum, usually indicated by the symbol \boldsymbol{\vec{p}}, as the product of its mass \boldsymbol{m} by its velocity \boldsymbol{\vec{v.}}

\boldsymbol{\vec{p}} = \boldsymbol{m}\boldsymbol{\vec{v}}

The momentum is a vector quantity which has the same direction as the velocity of a body.
The unit of measurement of momentum in the SI system is the product of the units of mass and velocity and thus is kg m/s.

A new Form of Newton’s Second Law

Newton’s Second Law can be expressed in terms of change in momentum:

\boldsymbol{\vec{F}}_{\boldsymbol{{net}}}\boldsymbol{=} \boldsymbol{m} \boldsymbol{\vec{a}} \boldsymbol{=} \boldsymbol{m} \boldsymbol{\cfrac{\boldsymbol{(\vec{v}}_{\boldsymbol{{final}}} \boldsymbol{-} \boldsymbol{\vec{v}}_{\boldsymbol{{initial}}})}{\boldsymbol{\Delta{t}}}} \boldsymbol{=} \boldsymbol{\cfrac{\boldsymbol{\boldsymbol{m} \vec{v}}_{\boldsymbol{{final}}} \boldsymbol{-} \boldsymbol{m} \boldsymbol{\vec{v}}_{\boldsymbol{{initial}}}}{\boldsymbol{\Delta{t}}}} \boldsymbol{=}\boldsymbol{\cfrac{\boldsymbol{\vec{p}}_{\boldsymbol{{final}}} \boldsymbol{-} \boldsymbol{\vec{p}}_{\boldsymbol{{initial}}}}{\boldsymbol{\Delta{t}}}}

which can be written in the more compact form

\boldsymbol{\vec{F}}_{\boldsymbol{{net}}}= \boldsymbol{\cfrac{\Delta{\vec{p}}}{\Delta{t}}}


It’s interesting to notice that this is actually the way in which Newton wrote his second law in his original work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Latin for “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”).

Since we can write this equation as \boldsymbol{\Delta{\vec{p}} =\vec{F}_{net}\Delta{t}} (a simple idea which, as we will see later, has very interesting consequences), the SI units of momentum should be equivalent to the product of the units of force and time and this is indeed the case as kg m/s = N s.

Example 1

If a constant net force of 130 N acts for 10 ms on a 50 g ball initially at rest, what will its final momentum be?

Since the ball is initially at rest, its initial momentum is zero: \boldsymbol{\vec{p}_{initial} = 0}. From the expression of Newton’s Second Law we get

\boldsymbol{\vec{F}}_{\boldsymbol{{net}}} \boldsymbol{=} \boldsymbol{\cfrac{\boldsymbol{\vec{p}}_{\boldsymbol{{final}}} }{\boldsymbol{\Delta{t}}}} \boldsymbol{\Rightarrow } \boldsymbol{\vec{p}}_{\boldsymbol{{final}}} \boldsymbol{=} \boldsymbol{\vec{F}}_{\boldsymbol{{net}}}\boldsymbol{\Delta{t}}

The final momentum will have thus the same direction as the force acting on the body and magnitude

\boldsymbol{p}_{\boldsymbol{{final}}} \boldsymbol{=} \boldsymbol{F}_{\boldsymbol{{net}}}\boldsymbol{\Delta{t}} \boldsymbol{=} \boldsymbol{130 N {\cdot} 10 \boldsymbol{{\times} }10^{-3}s = 1.3 kg{\cdot}m/s}

The impulse of a force and its graphical interpretation

In the expression

\boldsymbol{\vec{F}}_{\boldsymbol{{net}}}= \boldsymbol{\cfrac{\Delta{\vec{p}}}{\Delta{t}}}

the net force on the left-hand side is the average force acting during the time \boldsymbol{\Delta{t}}. We can give a precise meaning to this average force by introducing another physical quantity named the impulse.

The impulse \boldsymbol{\vec{I}} of a constant force \boldsymbol{\vec{F}} acting for a time \boldsymbol{\Delta{t}} is given by

\boldsymbol{\vec{I}} \boldsymbol{=} \boldsymbol{\vec{F}}\boldsymbol{\Delta{t}}

The impulse is a vector quantity. For a constant force, its direction is the same as the direction of the force. The SI unit of impulse is N s.

If we plot the intensity of the force versus time, for a constant force the graph will look like the one below:

The magnitude of the impulse is represented by the area highlighted in yellow.

We can represent the magnitude of the variable force on a plot as below:

The impulse delivered by the variable force has the same direction of the force and, like in the case of a constant force, has intensity equal to the area below the graph of the intensity of the force vs the t axis.

Example 2
The magnitude of a force of constant direction varies with time according to the plot below. What is the impulse of the force?

The impulse and the force have the same direction. To know the magnitude of the impulse, we need to calculate the area of the triangle. The base is 0.8 s while the height is 8.0 N. So the magnitude of the impulse is given by

\boldsymbol{I = \cfrac{0.8 s {\cdot} 8.0 N}{2} = 3.2 N {\cdot} s}

Average force
The definition of impulse of a variable force allows us to give a precise definition of average force.

If a variable force \boldsymbol{\vec{F}} acts for a time \boldsymbol{\Delta{t}}, its average value \boldsymbol{\vec{F}_{AVG}} is the value of a constant force that delivers the same impulse \boldsymbol{\vec{I}} as the force \boldsymbol{\vec{F}} in the same time \boldsymbol{\Delta{t}}:

\boldsymbol{\vec{I}} \boldsymbol{=} \boldsymbol{\vec{F}_{AVG}}\boldsymbol{\Delta{t}}

For a variable force of constant direction, the average value of the magnitude is such that, in a force versus time plot like the one below, the area below the green line equals the area below the yellow line:

Impulse and momentum change

Newton’s Second Law in the form \boldsymbol{\vec{F}_{net}= \frac{\Delta{\vec{p}}}{\Delta{t}}} can be easily rewritten as

 \boldsymbol{\vec{F}}_{\boldsymbol{{net}}}\boldsymbol{\Delta{t}} \boldsymbol{=}\boldsymbol{\Delta{\vec{p}} }

Since the \boldsymbol{\vec{F}}_{\boldsymbol{{net}}} on the left-hand side is actually the average force, the whole left-hand side is the impulse of the net force. Hence, we can write that the impulse of the net force acting on a body is equal to its change in momentum:

 \boldsymbol{\vec{I}}_{\boldsymbol{{net}}}\boldsymbol{=}\boldsymbol{\Delta{\vec{p}} }

Example 3

A 50 g tennis ball is falling vertically to the ground. Immediately before hitting the ground its speed is 15 m/s. Immediately after the bounce its speed is 11 m/s. The ground contact time is 10 ms. What is the average normal force exerted by the ground on the ball?

Let’s start by calculating the impulse of the net force, which is easily obtained in terms of the change in momentum.

 \boldsymbol{\vec{I}}_{\boldsymbol{{net}}}\boldsymbol{=}\boldsymbol{\Delta{\vec{p}}} \boldsymbol{=} \boldsymbol{\vec{p}}_{\boldsymbol{{f}}} \boldsymbol{-} \boldsymbol{\vec{p}}_{\boldsymbol{{i}}}