Belt Friction

In any system where a belt or a cable is wrapped around a pulley or some other cylindrical surface, we have the potential for friction between the belt or cable and the surface it is in contact with. In some cases, such as a rope over a tree branch being used to lift an object, the friction forces represent a loss. In other cases such as a belt driven system, these friction forces are put to use transferring power from one pulley to another pulley.

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If we were to pass a rope over a tree branch to help lift a heavy object, the rope would experience belt friction resisting the sliding of the rope relative to the surface of the tree branch.
"Kiilahihnakone" by ZngZng - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons  -
In many belt driven systems, the belt friction keeps the pulley from slipping relative to the belt. This allows us to use belts to transfer forces from one pulley to another pulley.

For analysis, we will start a flat, massless belt passing over a cylindrical surface. If we have an equal tension in each belt, the belt will experience a non-uniform normal force from the cylinder that is supporting it.

In a frictionless scenario, if we were to increase the tension on one side of the rope it would begin to slide across the cylinder. If friction exists between the rope and the surface though, the friction force will oppose with sliding motion, and prevent it up to a point.

Belt Without Friction
With equal tensions on each side of the belt, only a non-uniform normal force exists between the belt and the surface.
Belt with Friction
With unequal tensions, a friction force will also be present opposing the relative sliding of the belt to the surface.

Friction in Flat Belts

For a flat belt, the belt or cable will interact with the bottom surface. For a V belt, the belt or cable will interact with the sides of a groove.

A flat belt is any system where the pulley or surface only interacts with the bottom surface of the belt or cable. If the belt or cable instead fits into a groove, then it is considered a V belt.

When analyzing systems with belts, we are usually interested in the range of values for the tension forces where the belt will not slip relative to the surface. Starting with the smaller tension force on one side (T1) we, can increase the second tension force (T2) to some maximum value before slipping. For a flat belt, the maximum value for T2 will depend on the value of T1, the static coefficient of friction between the belt and the surface, and the contact angle between the belt and the surface (Beta) given in radians, as described in the equation below.

Belt Friction Equation
The maximum value of T2 before the belt starts slipping can be determined with the equation above.

Friction in V Belts

A V belt is any belt that fits into a groove on a pulley or surface. For the V belt to be effective, the belt or cable will need to be in contact with the sides of the groove, but not the base of the groove as shown in the diagram below. With the normal forces on each side, the vertical components must add up the the same as what the flat belt would have, but the added horizontal components of the normal forces, which cancel each other out, increase the potential for friction forces.

The equation for the maximum difference in tensions in V belt systems is similar to the equation in flat belt systems, except we use an "enhanced" coefficient of friction that takes into account the increased normal and friction forces possible because of the groove.

Friction for V Belts
In a V belt, the "enhanced" coefficient of friction takes into account the coefficient of friction  between the two materials as well as the groove angle.

As we can see from the equation above, steeper sides to the groove (which would result in a smaller angle alpha) result in an increased potential difference in the tension forces. The trade-off with steeper sides however is that the belt becomes wedged in the groove and will require force to unwedge itself from the groove as it leaves the pulley. This will cause losses that decrease the efficiency of the belt driven system. If very high tension differences are required, chain driven systems offer an alternative that is usually more efficient.

Torque and Power Transmission in Belt Driven Systems

In belt driven systems there is usually an input pulley and one or more output pulleys. To determine the maximum torque or power that can be transmitted by the belt, we will need to consider each of the pulleys independently, understanding that slipping occurring at either the input or the output will result in a failure of the power transmission.

Belt Drive System
A belt driven system with a single input and a single output.

The first step in determining the maximum torque or power that can be transmitted in the belt drive is to determine the maximum possible value for T2 before slipping occurs at either the input or output pulley (again slipping at either location cannot occur). To start we will often be given the "resting tension". This is the tension in the belt when everything is stationary and before power is transferred. Sometimes machines will have adjustments to increase or decrease the resting tension by slighting increasing or decreasing the distance between the pulleys. If we turn on the machine and increase the load torque at the output, the tension on the one side of the pulleys will remain constant as the resting tension while the tension on the other side will increase. Since the resting tension is constant and always the lower of the two tensions, it will be the T1 tension the equations discussed in earlier sections.

Though it is often wise to check, assuming the pulleys are the same material (and therefore the same coefficients of friction), it is often assumed that the belt will first slip at the smaller of the two pulleys in a single input, single output belt system. This is because the smaller pulley will have a the smaller contact angle (Beta), while all other values remain the same.

Once we have the maximum value for T2, we can use that to find the torque at the input pulley and the torque at the output pulley. Note that these two values will not be the same unless the pulleys are the same size. To find the toque, we will simply need to find the net moment exerted by the two tension forces, where the radius of the pulley is the moment arm.

Maximum torque before slipping

To find the maximum power we can transfer with the belt drive system, we will use the rotational definition of power, where the power is equal to the toque times the angular velocity in radians per second. Unlike the torque, the power at the input and the output will be the same assuming no inefficiencies.

Power transfer in belt drive systems

Worked Problems:

Question 1:

A steel cable supports a 60 kg mass and is then run a quarter of the way around a steel cylinder and supported by a pulling force as shown in the diagram below. The static coefficient of friction between the cable and the steel cylinder is .3.

  • What is the minimum pulling force required to lift the mass?
  • What is the minimum pulling force required to keep the mass from falling?
Problem 1 Diagram


Question 2:

A V belt pulley as shown below is used to transmit a torque. If the diameter of the pulley below is 5 inches, the resting tension in the belt is 20 lbs, and the coefficient of friction between the belt material and the pulley is .4, what is the maximum torque the pulley can exert before slipping?

Problem 2 Diagram


Question 3:

A flat belt is being used to transfer power from a motor to an alternator as shown in the diagram below. The coefficient of friction between the belt material and the pulley is .5. If we require a power of 100 Watts (Nm/s) while the input is rotating at a rate of 1000 rpm and the output is rotating at a rate of 1428.6 rpm, what is the required resting tension in the belt? (Assume contact angles of approximately 180 degrees)

Problem 3 Diagram