Energy is a state function commonly defined as the capacity to do work. Since work is defined as the movement of an object through a distance, energy can also be described as the ability to move an object through a distance. As an example, imagine that a bar magnet is placed next to a pile of iron filings (thin slivers of iron metal). The iron filings begin to move toward the iron bar because magnetic energy pulls on the iron filings and causes them to move.
Energy can be a difficult concept to understand. Un- like matter, energy can not be taken hold of or placed on a laboratory bench for study. We know the nature and characteristics of energy best because of the effect it has on objects around it, as in the case of the bar magnet and iron filings mentioned above.
Energy is described in many forms, including mechanical, heat, electrical, magnetic, sound, chemical, and nuclear. Although these forms appear to be very different from each other, they often have much in common and can generally be transformed into one another.
Over time, a number of different units have been used to measure energy. In the British system, for example, the fundamental unit of energy is the foot-pound. One foot- pound is the amount of energy that can move a weight of one pound a distance of one foot. In the metric system, the fundamental unit of energy is the joule (abbreviation: J), named after the English scientist James Prescott Joule (1818-1889). A joule is the amount of energy that can move a weight of one newton a distance of one meter.
Potential and kinetic energy
Every object has energy as a consequence of its position in space and/or its motion. For example, a base- ball poised on a railing at the top of the observation deck on the Empire State Building has potential energy be- cause of its ability to fall off the railing and come crashing down onto the street. The potential energy of the baseball—as well as that of any other object—is dependent on two factors, its mass and its height above the ground. The formula for potential energy is p.e. = m X g X h, where m stands for mass, h for height above the ground, and g for the gravitational constant (9.8 m per second per second).
Potential energy is actually a manifestation of the gravitational attraction of two bodies for each other. The
baseball on top of the Empire State Building has potential energy because of the gravitational force that tends to bring the ball and Earth together. When the ball falls, both Earth and ball are actually moving toward each other. Since Earth is so many times more massive than the ball, however, we do not see its very minute motion.
When an object falls, at least part of its potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, the energy due to an object’s motion. The amount of kinetic energy possessed by an object is a function of two variables, its mass and its velocity. The formula for kinetic energy is k.e. = 1/2m X v2, where m is the mass of the object and v is its velocity. This formula shows that an object can have a lot of kinetic energy for two reasons. It can either be very heavy or it can be moving very fast. For that reason, a fairly light baseball falling over a very great distance and traveling at a very great speed can do as much damage as a much more massive object falling at a slower speed.
Conservation of energy
The sum total of an object’s potential and kinetic energy is known as its mechanical energy. The total amount of mechanical energy possessed by a body is a constant. The baseball described above has a maximum potential energy and minimum kinetic energy (actually a zero kinetic energy) while at rest. In the fraction of a second be- fore the ball has struck the ground, its kinetic energy has become a maximum and its potential energy has reached almost zero.
The case of the falling baseball described above is a special interest of a more general rule known as the law of conservation of energy. According to this law, energy can never be created or destroyed. In other words, the total amount of energy available in the universe remains constant and can never increase or decrease.
Although energy can never be created or destroyed, it can be transformed into new forms. In an electric iron, for example, an electrical current flows through metallic coils within the iron. As it does so, the current experiences resistance from the metallic coils and is converted into a different form, heat. A television set is another de- vice that operates by the transformation of energy. An electrical beam from the back of the television tube strikes a thin layer of chemicals on the television screen, causing them to glow. In this case, electrical energy is converted into light. Many of the modern appliances that we use in our homes, such as the electric iron and the television set, make use of the transformation of energy from one form to another.
In the early 1900s, Albert Einstein announced per- haps the most surprising energy transformation of all. Einstein showed by mathematical reasoning that energy can be converted into matter and, vice versa, matter can be transformed into energy. He expressed the equivalence of matter and energy in a now famous equation, E = m X c2, where c is a constant, the speed of light.
Forms of energy
The operation of a steam engine is an example of heat being used as a source of energy. Hot steam is pumped into a cylinder, forcing a piston to move within the cylinder. When the steam cools off and changes back to water, the piston returns to its original position. The cycle is then repeated. The up-and-down motion of the piston is used to turn a wheel or do some other kind of work. In this example, the heat of the hot steam is used to do work on the wheel or some other object.
The source of heat energy is the motion of molecules within a substance. In the example above, steam is said to be “hot” because the particles of which it is made are moving very rapidly. When those particles slow down, the steam has less energy. The total amount of energy contained within any body as a consequence of particle motion is called the body’s thermal energy.
One measure of the amount of particle motion within a body is temperature. Temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of the particles within the body. An object in which particles are moving very rapidly on average has a high temperature. One in which particles are moving slowly on average has a low temperature.
Temperature and thermal energy are different concepts, however, because temperature measures only the average kinetic energy of particles, while thermal energy measures the total amount of energy in an object. A thimbleful of water and a swimming pool of water might both have the same temperature, that is, the average kinetic energy of water molecules in both might be the same. But there is a great deal more water in the swimming pool, so the total thermal energy in it is much greater than the thermal energy of water in the thimble.
Suppose that two ping pong balls, each carrying an electrical charge, are placed near to each other. If free to move, the two balls have a tendency either to roll toward each other or away from each other, depending on the charges. If the charges they carry are the same (both positive or both negative), the two balls will repel each other and roll away from each other. If they charges are opposite, the balls will attract each other and roll toward each other. The force of attraction or repulsion of the two balls is a manifestation of the electrical potential energy existing between the two balls.
Electrical potential energy is analogous to gravitational energy. In the case of the latter, any two bodies in the universe exert a force of attraction on each other that depends on the masses of the two bodies and the distance between them. Any two charged bodies in the universe, on the other hand, experience a force of attraction or repulsion (depending on their signs) that depends on the magnitude of their charges and the distance separating them. A lightning bolt traveling from the ground to a cloud is an example of electrical potential energy that has suddenly been converted to it “kinetic” form, an electrical current.
An electrical current is analogous to kinetic energy, that is, it is the result of moving electrical charges. An electrical current flows any time two conditions are met. First, there must be a source of electrical charges. A battery is a familiar source of electrical charges. Second, there must be a pathway through which the electric charges can flow. The pathway is known as a circuit.
An electric current is useful, however, only if a third condition is met—the presence of some kind of de- vice that can be operated by electrical energy. For example, one might insert a radio into the circuit through which electrical charges are flowing. When that happens, the electrical charges flow through the radio and make it produce sounds. That is, electrical energy is transformed into sound energy within the radio.