What forms of energy is Raul using to move his LEGO car?
When he was a teenager in Romania, Raul Oaida became obsessed with building things: a jet-engine bike, a tiny spaceship, a LEGO car that runs on air. Why? Well, why not?
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Energy comes in two basic forms: potential and kinetic
Potential Energy is any type of stored energy. It can be chemical, nuclear, gravitational, or mechanical.
Kinetic Energy is found in movement. An airplane flying or a meteor plummeting each have kinetic energy. Even the tiniest things have kinetic energy, like atoms vibrating when they are hot or when they transmit sound waves. Electricity is the kinetic energy of flowing electrons between atoms.
Energy can shift between forms, but it is never destroyed or created.
A car transforms the potential energy trapped in gasoline into various types of energy that help the wheels turn and get the car to move. Most of the energy is converted to thermal energy, which is an unorganized form of energy that is difficult to convert into a useful form.
Power plants transform one form of energy into a very useful form, electricity. Coal and natural gas plants use the chemical potential energy trapped in fossil fuels. Nuclear power plants change the nuclear potential energy of uranium or plutonium into electricity too. Wind turbines change the kinetic energy of air molecules in wind into electricity. Hydroelectric power plants take advantage of the gravitational potential energy of water as it falls from the top of a dam to the bottom.
These transformations are hardly perfect. An efficient fossil fuel power plant loses more than half of the energy it creates to forms other than electricity, such as heat, light, and sound.
Forms of Potential Energy
Systems can increase gravitational energy as mass moves away from the center of Earth or other objects that are large enough to generate significant gravity (our sun, the planets and stars).
For example, the farther you lift an anvil away from the ground, the more potential energy it has. Lifting the anvil is called work, which is an interaction in which energy is transferred from one system (the person) to another (the anvil). The person has to do more work in order to carry the anvil higher, and the higher the anvil is carried, the more gravitational potential energy is stored in the anvil. If the anvil is dropped, that potential energy transforms to kinetic energy as the anvil moves faster and faster toward Earth.
Chemical energy is stored in the bonds between the atoms in compounds. This stored energy is transformed when bonds are broken or formed through chemical reactions. Like letters of the alphabet that can be rearranged to form new words with very different meanings, atoms move around during chemical reactions, and they form new compounds with vastly different personalities.
When we burn sugar (a compound made of the elements hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon) in our bodies, the elements are reorganized into water and carbon dioxide. These reactions both absorb and release energy, but the overall result is that we get energy from the sugar, and our bodies use that energy to do work.
Chemical reactions that produce net energy are exothermic. When wood is burned, the chemical reactions taking place are exothermic. Electromagnetic and thermal energy are released. Only some chemical reactions release energy. Endothermic reactions need energy to start and to continue, such as by adding heat or light.
Today’s nuclear power plants are fueled by fission. Uranium or plutonium atoms are broken apart, freeing lots of energy. Hydrogen atoms in the sun experience nuclear fusion, combining to form helium and subsequently releasing large amounts of energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation and thermal energy.
Nuclear energy is the stored potential of the nucleus of an atom. Most atoms are stable on Earth; they keep their identities as particular elements, like hydrogen, helium, iron, and carbon, as identified in the Periodic Table of Elements. The number of protons in the nucleus tells you which element it is. Nuclear reactions change the fundamental identity of elements by splitting up an atom’s nucleus or fusing together more than one nucleus. These changes are called fission and fusion, respectively.
Elastic energy can be stored mechanically in a compressed gas or liquid, a coiled spring, or a stretched elastic band. On an atomic scale, the stored energy is a temporary strain placed on the bonds between atoms, meaning there’s no permanent change to the material. These bonds absorb energy as they are stressed, and release that energy as they relax.
Forms of Kinetic Energy
A moving object has kinetic energy. A basketball passed between players shows translational energy. That kinetic energy is proportional to the ball’s mass and the square of its velocity. To throw the same ball twice as fast, a player does more work and transfers four times the energy.
If a player shoots a basketball with backspin or topspin, the basketball will also have rotational energy as it spins. Rotational energy is proportional to how many times it spins per second, as well as the ball’s mass, and the size and shape of the ball.
In shooting a basketball, players often try to add rotational energy as backspin, because it results in the greatest slowdown in speed when the basketball hits the rim or the backboard, increasing the chance that the ball stays near the basket. The opposite direction of spin, a topspin, can be used in games like tennis, because it will help speed up a ball after impact and lowers the angle it travels after the bounce.
THERMAL ENERGY AND TEMPERATURE
Thermal energy is directly related to temperature. We can’t see individual atoms vibrating, but we can feel their kinetic energies as temperature. When there’s a difference between the temperature of the environment and a system within it, thermal energy is transferred between them as heat.
A hot cup of tea loses some of its thermal energy as heat flows from the tea to the air in the room. Over time, the tea cools to the same temperature as the room air. At the same time, the thermal energy in the room air increases due to heat transfer from the tea. However, the thermal capacitance of the room air is much larger than the tea, so the temperature of the air in the room increases by very little – so little that a person in the room wouldn’t notice it.
Heat flows spontaneously from high temperature objects to nearby low temperature objects, until all objects reach the same temperature, called thermal equilibrium. Some materials are easier to heat up or cool down than others. The thermal capacitance, or heat capacity, of a material tells us how much energy it takes to raise that material one degree in temperature. A pound of water has greater thermal capacitance than the same amount of stainless steel, for example. In moments, an empty one pound pot on the stove heats to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (the boiling temperature of water). If you pour a pound of water into the pot, it will take much longer than the empty pot to reach the same temperature, because water needs more energy to get as hot as steel.
Sound waves are made when stuff vibrates – like strings on an instrument or gas molecules in the air. Sound waves travel when the vibrating stuff causes stuff surrounding it to also vibrate. This happens in liquid, solid, or gaseous states. Sound cannot travel in a vacuum because a vacuum has no atoms to transmit the vibration.
Solids, liquids, and gases transmit sounds as waves, but the atoms that pass along the sound don’t travel the way photons do. The sound wave travels between atoms, like people passing along a “wave” in a sports stadium. Sounds have different frequencies and wavelengths (related to pitch) and different magnitudes (related to how loud).
Even though radio waves can transmit information about sound, they are a completely different kind of energy, called electromagnetic energy.
Electromagnetic energy is the same as radiation or light. This type of energy can take the form of visible light, like the light from a candle or a light bulb, or invisible waves, like radio waves, microwaves, x-rays and gamma rays. Radiation — whether it’s coming from a candle or an x-ray tube — can travel in a vacuum. Sometimes physicists describe electromagnetic radiation as being composed of particles – tiny packets of energy called photons. Each photon has a characteristic frequency, wavelength, and energy, but all photons travel at the same speed, the speed of light, or nearly 1 billion feet per second.
Electromagnetic energy can be converted to the chemical energy stored in plants through photosynthesis, the process by which plants and algae use the sun’s radiation to turn carbon dioxide gas into sugar and carbohydrates.
Electric energy is to the kinetic energy of moving electrons, the negatively-charged particles in atoms. For more information about electricity, see Basics of Electricity.