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Brake pads work on principles of simple physics in that they convert the cars kinetic energy into thermal energy through the use of friction. When the brakes are applied, they come into contact with the discs and the heat of the friction is used to stop the car. This can happen hydraulically, electromagnetically, mechanically, or pneumatically depending on the model of vehicle you own. Brake pads can be made of many different materials ranging from asbestos to semi-metallic compounds. Because of health risks asbestos is rarely if ever used anymore. Each material used has its own advantages and disadvantages. The semi-metallic compounds are strong and good at heat conduction but they are also abrasive and noisy and can cause brake disc wear. Ceramic compounds can be a good option as they can withstand high temperature, generate less dust, and provide quieter braking. Asbestos used to be popular as it had a very high heat resistance but has since been replaced by materials such as mineral fibres, copper fibres, and cellulose. The two main differences between hard and soft compound pads are the materials in which they are constructed, remember the softer the pad the quicker you stop and the quicker they wear out. The harder the compound of the pad the longer it will last but it may take a larger distance to stop. For the recommended type of brake pad for your vehicle always refer to your service manual.
One thing to be aware of with brake pads is that they can cause brake dust. As you repeatedly apply the brakes, there is a small amount of material that gets ground off the pads. It is a good idea to use a dust remover to periodically clean the brake dust off.
Related to brake pads are the brake shoes. The difference is that brake shoes are used inside of drum brakes and the brake pads are used in disc brake systems. Brake shoes house the brake lining for drum brakes, when the brakes are applied fluid is pushed down the brake lines and into a wheel cylinder. When the wheel cylinder expands it pushes the brake shoes into contact with brake drums causing the much needed friction to make sure the vehicle comes to a stop. Much like the pads, brake shoes also wear out with use and if not replaced at regular intervals may cause damage to the brake drum. It is fairly common in most cars to have drum brakes on the rear wheels and disc brakes on the front wheels.
The braking system can be a complicated one but if it is broken down in sections it is fairly easy to gain an overall understanding of the system. The most important thing is to keep your brakes in good working condition by regularly having the checked.