Energy (Physics in Action)

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The classic example of potential energy is to pick up a brick. When it's on the ground, the brick had a certain amount of energy. When you pick it up, you apply force and lift the object.

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You did work. That work added energy to the brick. Now the brick can do something it couldn't do before; it can fall.

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And in falling, can exert forces and do work on other objects. Season of Springs The study of springs is a whole section of physics. A spring that just sits there doesn't do much.

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When you push on it, you exert a force and change the arrangement of the coils. That change in the arrangment stores energy in the spring. It now contains energy and can expand and do work on other things. Anything that is elastic can change its arrangement and then restore itself , such as a rubber band, can store energy in the same way.

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A rubber band can be stretched and then it is ready to do something. That stretching involves work and increases the potential energy. You can flatten a solid rubber ball and it will want to bounce back up. You can also pull the drawstring of a bow and the work done stores the energy that can make the arrow go flying.

Those are all examples of your putting energy in, and then something happening when the energy comes out. Gases Storing Energy Gases? What can they do? Gases are great because they can compress and expand.

They act as if they were elastic. If the pressure increases and compresses gas molecules, the amount of stored energy increases. It's similar to a spring, but slightly different. Eventually that energy in the compressed gas can be let out to do something work. Another form of kinetic energy is known as heat. The temperature of something is a direct measurement of how fast the atoms inside it are moving. In a hot cup of coffee, the water molecules are racing around at a fast clip, slowing down as the cup cools.

Throw an iron bar into the fire and its atoms start moving faster too, although in this case the atoms are bound in position, and so the movement is the form of a jiggling vibration. Sometimes an object is pulled or pushed in a particular direction, but its movement is stopped by some other force.

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In this case, the object is said to have potential energy. Potential energy means the potential to move. A glass sitting on a table is being pulled down by the force of gravity. But any movement is being stopped by a much stronger force — the electrical repulsion of the atoms in the table. Give the glass a nudge off the table, though, and it falls. What about chemical energy, electrical energy, or nuclear energy? These are a bit more complicated, but in the final analysis, all these forms of energy also involve a type of movement or a potential to move.

For example, lots of energy is locked, like a coiled spring, inside atomic nuclei. This energy can be released when a uranium nucleus splits in two. The two halves are both positively charged, and so just after the split they are electrically repelled by other another and fly apart. Thus the nuclear potential energy ends up as kinetic energy. Digital Issues Buy a back issue. Renew my subscription Give a Gift Manage my subscription. Explainer Physics 12 September What is energy? It's one of the most basic concepts in physics, but also one of the hardest to define.

Cathal O'Connell has a go.

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