Potential Energy

∞ generated and posted on 2016.08.22 ∞

Stored ability to perform productive or operative activity.

The most familiar examples of potential energy are (1) that associated with objects and gravity, where the higher they are above the ground the more potential energy they possess (since they have the potential to fall towards the Earth), and (2) the energy associated with chemical bonds. By far the more important, biologically, is the latter.

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In terms of the generation of electricity, hydroelectric plants make use of the former. In this case, it is water that has piled up to relatively great heights behind dams.

The primary forms of potential energy available to organisms are those associated with chemical bonds, that is, locked into the electrons found, particularly, in carbon-to-hydrogen bonds, e.g., as one sees in carbohydrates and lipids.

Why do you put gasoline in your car? Because the act of driving is one of performing work and to accomplish this work you need energy. Unless you (or your car) are capturing that energy from the environment around you, as you go, then you will need to carry stored energy.

That stored energy, in the case of gasoline, is the potential energy associated with the chemical bonds making up the gasoline molecules. Break those bonds and energy is released, that is, kinetic energy, and that energy can be tapped to move your car forward.

Note that not all of that kinetic energy is converted into forward motion and that which is left over is lost as waste heat. This is why, in fact, your car has a radiator, to efficiently remove the heat that otherwise would accumulate in your engine due to the inefficiency with which you are converting the potential energy found in gasoline into the kinetic energy of motion, that is, the movement of your car down the road.