General Mechanics/Forced Oscillator

If we wiggle the left end of the spring in the above diagram by amount d=d0sin ωFt, rather than rigidly fixing it, we have a forced harmonic oscillator.

The constant d0 is the amplitude of the imposed wiggling motion. The forcing frequency ωF is not necessarily equal to the natural or resonant frequency of the mass-spring system. Very different behavior occurs depending on whether it is less than, equal to, or greater than ω.

Given the above wiggling, the force of the spring on the mass becomes

since the length of the spring is the difference between the positions of the left and right ends. Proceeding as for the unforced mass-spring system, we arrive at the differential equation

The solution to this equation turns out to be the sum of a forced part in which x∝ sin ωFt, and a free part which is the same as the solution to the unforced equation. We are primarily interested in the forced part of the solution, so let us set x=d0sin ωFtand substitute this into the equation of motion, giving:

The sine factor cancels leaving us with an algebraic equation for , the amplitude of the oscillatory motion of the mass.

Solving for the ratio of the oscillation amplitude of the mass to the amplitude of the wiggling motion, we find

where we have recognized that k/M2, the square of the frequency of the free oscillation.

Notice that if ωF<ω, then the motion of the mass is in phase with the wiggling motion and the amplitude of the mass oscillation is greater than the amplitude of the wiggling. As the forcing frequency approaches the natural frequency of the oscillator, the response of the mass grows in amplitude.

When the forcing is at the resonant frequency, the response is technically infinite, though practical limits on the amplitude of the oscillation will intervene in this case -- for instance, the spring cannot stretch or shrink an infinite amount. In many cases friction will act to limit the response of the mass to forcing near the resonant frequency.

When the forcing frequency is greater than the natural frequency, the mass actually moves in the opposite direction of the wiggling motion -- i. e., the response is out of phase with the forcing. The amplitude of the response decreases as the forcing frequency increases above the resonant frequency.

Forced and free harmonic oscillators form an important part of many physical systems. For instance, any elastic material body such as a bridge or an airplane wing has harmonic oscillatory modes. A common engineering problem is to ensure that such modes are damped by friction or some other physical mechanism when there is a possibility of excitation of these modes by naturally occurring processes. A number of disasters can be traced to a failure to properly account for oscillatory forcing in engineered structures.