Soda Cans

A typical calculus optimization question asks you to find the dimensions of a cylindrical soda can with a fixed volume that has a minimum surface area (and therefore is cheaper to manufacture).

Let r be the radius of the cylinder and h be its height. The volume, V, is constant and V=\pi {{r}^{2}}h. The surface area including the top and bottom is given by

S=2\pi rh+2\pi {{r}^{2}}

Since \displaystyle h=\frac{V}{\pi {{r}^{2}}}, the surface area, S, can be expressed as

S=2V{{r}^{-1}}+2\pi {{r}^{2}}

To find the value of r that will give the smallest surface area we find the derivative, set it equal to zero and solve for r:

\displaystyle \frac{dS}{dr}=-2V{{r}^{-2}}+4\pi r

This will equal zero when \displaystyle r=\sqrt[3]{\frac{V}{2\pi }} and substituting into the expression above \displaystyle h=\sqrt[3]{\frac{4V}{\pi }}.

Then \displaystyle \frac{h}{r}=\sqrt[3]{\frac{\frac{4V}{\pi }}{\frac{V}{2\pi }}}=2, so h=2r. In the optimum can the height is equal to the diameter.

The thing is that very few cans, especially beverage cans are anywhere near this “square “ shape. The closest I could find in my pantry was a tomato sauce can holding 8 oz. or 277 mL. The inside dimensions are about 65 cm. by 75cm.  Compare this to the 12 oz. soda can holding 355 mL. The usual reason given for this departure from the mathematically best shape is the taller can is easier to hold especially for children.


What got me interested in this was the video below. While there is no overt calculus mentioned, there is a lot of math. There are also STEM considerations, specifically engineering. As you watch look for the math and engineering ideas that are mentioned and discuss them with your class. Here are a few:

  1. Geometry: Why a cylinder? Why not a sphere or a cube?
  2. Engineering: When cutting circles out of rectangular sheets of aluminum there is a lot of unused metal. Why is all this waste not a problem? This goes to materials engineering; steel is more difficult to recycle than aluminum.
  3. Math: Efficient packing is also a consideration. Check the calculations in the video as to the most efficient way (least empty space) to pack containers. Why do they not use the most efficient?
  4. Geometry: The (spherical) dome is a very strong shape. In what other places are domes used? Why?
  5. Engineering: How does pressurizing the cans make them stronger?
  6. Geometry and Engineering: The elongated ridges on the sides of non-pressurized steel cans strengthen the sides. How are these ridges similar to the dome or circular arch?
  7. Physics: Look for a discussion of first- and second-class leavers.
  8. Engineering: What other advantages are there to using the very thin aluminum can.

At the end of the video 6 other videos are mentioned. These are also interesting and show the same process in cartoon form and in video of the machines making cans. The links to these are here:

How It’s Made:…


4 thoughts on “Soda Cans

    • Yes, #$@&#!! Please see this note at the bottom of the current and future posts:
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