Friction brakes, the most common kind, operate on the principle that friction can be used to convert the mechanical energy of a moving object into heat energy, which is absorbed by the brake. The essential components of a friction brake are a rotating part, such as a wheel, axle, disk, or brake drum, and a stationary part that is pressed against the rotating part to slow or stop it. The stationary part usually has a lining, called a brake lining, that can generate a great amount of friction yet give long wear; it formerly contained asbestos, but this is being replaced by less efficient materials for environmental reasons.
The principal types of friction brake are the block brake, the band brake, the internal-shoe brake, and the disk brake. The block brake consists of a block, the stationary part, that is shaped to fit the contour of a wheel or drum. For example, a wooden block applied to the rim of a wheel has long been used to slow or stop horse-drawn vehicles. A simple band brake consists of a metal band, the stationary part, that can be tightened around a drum by means of a lever. It is found on hoists and excavating machinery. The internal-shoe brake has a drum that contains two stationary semicircular pieces, or shoes, which slow or stop the motion of the drum by pressing against its inner surface. This is the type of brake most often found on automobiles, with an internal-shoe brake drum located on the central part of each wheel. A disk brake of the type used on automobiles has a metal disk and pistons with friction pads that can close on the disk and slow it.
A machine that is driven by an electric motor can sometimes use its motor as a brake. Because inertia keeps the machine's shafts moving after the current to the electric motor has been shut off, the machine keeps the motor's armature turning. While this is happening, if the motor's action can be changed to that of a generator, the electric current produced will be drawing its energy from the machine, thus slowing it. However, since such a braking method is not suitable for bringing the machine to a quick stop, it is usually supplemented by friction brakes.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.