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Potential Energy

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Energy Unit: Potential Energy

This diver is standing at the end of the diving board, ready to dive. After she dives and is falling toward the water, she’ll have kinetic energy, or the energy of moving matter. But even as she stands motionless high above the water, she has energy. Do you know why?

Stored Energy

The diver has energy because of her position high above the pool. The type of energy she has is called potential energy. Potential energy is energy that is stored in a person or object. Often, the person or object has potential energy because of its position or shape.

Q: What is it about the diver’s position that gives her potential energy?

A: Because the diver is high above the water, she has the potential to fall toward Earth because of gravity. This gives her potential energy.

Gravitational Potential Energy

Potential energy due to the position of an object above Earth’s surface is called gravitational potential energy. Like the diver on the diving board, anything that is raised up above Earth’s surface has the potential to fall because of gravity. You can see other examples of people with gravitational potential energy in the Figure below and below . You can also watch a cartoon introduction to gravitational potential energy by playing video #10 at this URL: http://www.animatedscience.co.uk/flv/

Gravitational potential energy depends on an object’s weight and its height above the ground. 

Other Forms of Potential Energy

All of the examples of potential energy described above involve movement or the potential to move. The form of energy that involves movement is called mechanical energy. Other forms of energy also involve potential energy, including chemical energy and nuclear energy. Chemical energy is stored in the bonds between the atoms of compounds. For example, food and batteries both contain chemical energy. Nuclear energy is stored in the nuclei of atoms because of the strong forces that hold the nucleus together. Nuclei of radioactive elements such as uranium are unstable, so they break apart and release the stored energy.

Summary

  • Potential energy is energy that is stored in a person or object.
  • Gravitational potential energy is due to the position of an object above Earth’s surface. The object has the potential to fall due to gravity. Gravitational potential energy depends on an object’s weight and its height above the ground.
  • Chemical energy and nuclear energy are other forms of potential energy.

Vocabulary

  • potential energy : Stored energy an object has because of its position or shape.

Practice

Do the animation at the following URL, and then answer the questions below.

http://www.classzone.com/books/ml_science_share/vis_sim/mem05_pg69_potential/mem05_pg69_potential.html

  1. Which paint can has greater potential energy after the painter carries it up the ladder? Why is this can’s potential energy greater?
  2. How could the painter give the other can more potential energy?

Review

  1. What is potential energy?
  2. Why does food have potential energy?

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