Potential, Kinetic, Free, and Activation Energy

Types of Energy

When an object is in motion, there is energy associated with that object. In the example of an airplane in flight, there is a great deal of energy associated with the motion of the airplane. This is because moving objects are capable of enacting a change, or doing work. Think of a wrecking ball. Even a slow-moving wrecking ball can do a great deal of damage to other objects. However, a wrecking ball that is not in motion is incapable of performing work. Energy associated with objects in motion is called kinetic energy. A speeding bullet, a walking person, the rapid movement of molecules in the air (which produces heat), and electromagnetic radiation like light all have kinetic energy.

Now what if that same motionless wrecking ball is lifted two stories above a car with a crane? If the suspended wrecking ball is unmoving, is there energy associated with it? The answer is yes. The suspended wrecking ball has energy associated with it that is fundamentally different from the kinetic energy of objects in motion. This form of energy results from the fact that there is the potential for the wrecking ball to do work. If it is released, indeed it would do work. Because this type of energy refers to the potential to do work, it is called potential energy. Objects transfer their energy between kinetic and potential in the following way: As the wrecking ball hangs motionless, it has 0 kinetic and 100 percent potential energy. Once it is released, its kinetic energy begins to increase because it builds speed due to gravity. At the same time, as it nears the ground, it loses potential energy. Somewhere mid-fall it has 50 percent kinetic and 50 percent potential energy. Just before it hits the ground, the ball has nearly lost its potential energy and has near-maximal kinetic energy. Other examples of potential energy include the energy of water held behind a dam (Figure), or a person about to skydive out of an airplane.

The photo on the left shows water behind a dam. The photo on the right shows a waterfall.
Water behind a dam has potential energy. Moving water, such as in a waterfall or a rapidly flowing river, has kinetic energy. (credit “dam”: modification of work by "Pascal"/Flickr; credit “waterfall”: modification of work by Frank Gualtieri)

Potential energy is not only associated with the location of matter (such as a child sitting on a tree branch), but also with the structure of matter. A spring on the ground has potential energy if it is compressed; so does a rubber band that is pulled taut. The very existence of living cells relies heavily on structural potential energy. On a chemical level, the bonds that hold the atoms of molecules together have potential energy. Remember that anabolic cellular pathways require energy to synthesize complex molecules from simpler ones, and catabolic pathways release energy when complex molecules are broken down. The fact that energy can be released by the breakdown of certain chemical bonds implies that those bonds have potential energy. In fact, there is potential energy stored within the bonds of all the food molecules we eat, which is eventually harnessed for use. This is because these bonds can release energy when broken. The type of potential energy that exists within chemical bonds, and is released when those bonds are broken, is called chemical energy (Figure). Chemical energy is responsible for providing living cells with energy from food. The release of energy is brought about by breaking the molecular bonds within fuel molecules.

The molecular formula of octane (top), which is a chain of eight carbons and eighteen hydrogens, fuels a racecar speeding along a track (bottom).
The molecules in gasoline (octane, the chemical formula shown) contain chemical energy within the chemical bonds. This energy is transformed into kinetic energy that allows a car to race on a racetrack. (credit “car”: modification of work by Russell Trow)

Link to Learning

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Visit this site and select “A simple pendulum” on the menu (under “Harmonic Motion”) to see the shifting kinetic (K) and potential energy (U) of a pendulum in motion.