Recent studies have shown that steady and unsteady operation of a belt drive may exhibit regimes absent of sliding at the belt–pulley interface, where instead detachment waves serve to relax stress in the so-called “slip” arc. To explore this finding further, herein we present an experimental and theoretical investigation into frictional mechanics in a simple belt drive system. To estimate friction experimentally, we perform a stress analysis based on spatio-temporal measurements of the belt tension, traction, and contact area evolution. Subsequently, we develop a model taking into account both bulk and surface hysteretic losses to explain the experimental observations. Our results show that the shear strain at the belt–pulley interface differs significantly between the driver and the driven pulleys, resulting in much larger mechanical losses in the driver case. The shear strain drops at the transition from the adhesion to the slip arc, and, in contrast to accepted theories, the slip arc contributes little to nothing to the power transmission. Our model reveals that the contact area evolution correlates to the shear traction changes and that viscoelastic shear and stretching dominate in the belt rolling friction. A significant contribution of detachment waves to the energy dissipation explains the higher mechanical losses observed in the driver case.

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