Potential energy is the energy that an object possesses due to its position in a force field or due to the configuration of its parts. Its value is a scalar magnitude whose unit of measurement of the International System of Units is the joule (J).
This term was introduced by the 19th century Scottish engineer and physicist William Rankine. However, it is related to the Greek philosopher Aristotle's concept of potentiality.
In this article we will define this concept in depth, explain the different types that exist and propose some observable examples in everyday life and in science.
Definition of Potential Energy
Potential energy refers to the energy stored in an object due to its relative position, configuration, or state.
In other words, it is a form of energy that an object possesses due to its position in a force field or its ability to do work in the future. There are two main types of potential energy: gravitational potential energy and elastic potential energy.
Types of Potential Energy
Energy can come in different forms. Although gravitational is the best known, there are many other types that we present below:
Gravitational potential energy: it is directly related to the force of gravity, therefore, it is involved in phenomena as common as the movement of objects on Earth. For example, it is essential in the generation of electricity in hydroelectric plants.
Chemical potential energy: It is involved in chemical reactions that release or absorb energy. For example, it is the energy basis for fossil fuels, photosynthesis, and a variety of chemical processes.
Nuclear potential energy : It is crucial in large-scale electrical power generation applications, such as in nuclear reactors, and in understanding nuclear physics and energy in the universe. Nuclear fusion and fission reactions allow this energy to be converted into thermal energy.
Elastic potential energy: It is relevant in mechanical applications, such as vehicle suspension and the operation of springs and shock absorbers. Although its impact is significant, it is more specific compared to gravitational and chemical potential energy.
Electrical potential energy : It is crucial in electronic applications and in the generation of electricity. Although vital in these areas, its relevance may be less evident in everyday life compared to other types of potential energy.
Magnetic potential energy: It is relevant in fields such as electronics and electricity generation, but its overall impact on everyday life may be less obvious than other types of potential energy.
Thermal potential energy: This type refers to the energy stored in the temperature of a system. The hotter an object or substance is, the greater its potential thermal energy. This energy can be converted into useful work, as in the case of heat engines such as internal combustion engines and steam turbines used in nuclear power plants.
Quantum well potential energy: In the field of quantum physics, there is a concept of potential energy associated with subatomic particles confined in microscopic structures called "quantum wells." These quantum wells are used in electronic devices such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and lasers, where potential energy is converted into coherent light.
Torsional spring potential energy: In mechanical systems involving torsional springs (springs that twist rather than stretch or compress), this type of energy is stored and released when the torsional spring relaxes and returns to its equilibrium position.
Examples of Potential Energy
Potential energy is present in numerous aspects of our daily lives and science. Here are some examples of situations in which this type of energy manifests:
- Parachute jump: When a skydiver rises in an airplane, he accumulates gravitational potential energy. When jumping, this energy is converted into kinetic energy, allowing for a safe landing.
- Hydroelectric: Hydroelectric plants store water in elevated reservoirs. The gravitational potential energy of water is converted into electrical energy when water flows downhill, spinning turbines.
- Springs and rubber bands: When you stretch a spring or rubber band, you accumulate elastic potential energy. When you let go, this energy is released, causing the spring or rubber band to return to its original shape.
- Atomic bombs – These types of nuclear weapons harness the nuclear potential energy released in a nuclear fission reaction to create a highly destructive effect.
- Electrical charge in batteries: Batteries store electrical potential energy. When connected to a device, this energy is converted into usable electrical energy.
- Chemical reactions in cooking: When we cook, the chemical potential energy in food is released through chemical reactions, generating heat and allowing food to cook.
- Space rockets: Before takeoff, rockets store a large amount of fuel. During takeoff, the chemical potential energy of the fuel is converted into kinetic energy that propels the rocket into space, which in turn is converted into gravitational potential energy.
- Spring Toys: Bouncy toys, such as wind-up toys or poppets, use elastic potential energy stored in a spring to achieve fun movements.
- Swinging a pendulum: A pendulum swings due to the conversion between gravitational and kinetic potential energy. When the pendulum is lifted, it accumulates potential energy which is then converted into motion when it is released.