Potential, Kinetic, Free, and Activation Energy

Energy Types

When an object is in motion, there is energy. For example, an airplane in flight produces considerable energy. 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 considerable damage to other objects. However, a wrecking ball that is not in motion is incapable of performing work. Energy with objects in motion is kinetic energy. A speeding bullet, a walking person, rapid molecule movement in the air (which produces heat), and electromagnetic radiation like light all have kinetic energy.

What if we lift that same motionless wrecking ball two stories above a car with a crane? If the suspended wrecking ball is unmoving, can we associate energy with it? The answer is yes. The suspended wrecking ball has associated energy that is fundamentally different from the kinetic energy of objects in motion. This energy form results from the potential for the wrecking ball to do work. If we release the ball it would do work. Because this energy type refers to the potential to do work, we call it 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 releases, its kinetic energy begins to increase because it builds speed due to gravity. Simultaneously, 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 water's energy held behind a dam (Figure), or a person about to skydive from 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)

We associate potential energy only with the matter's location (such as a child sitting on a tree branch), but also with the matter's structure. A spring on the ground has potential energy if it is compressed; so does a tautly pulled rubber band. The very existence of living cells relies heavily on structural potential energy. On a chemical level, the bonds that hold the molecules' atoms 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 break down. That certain chemical bonds' breakdown can release energy 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 we eventually harness for use. This is because these bonds can release energy when broken. Scientists call the potential energy type that exists within chemical bonds that releases when those bonds break chemical energy (Figure). Chemical energy is responsible for providing living cells with energy from food. Breaking the molecular bonds within fuel molecules brings about the energy's release.

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 contain chemical energy within the chemical bonds. This energy transforms into kinetic energy that allows a car to race on a racetrack. (credit “car”: modification of work by Russell Trow)

Link to Learning

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.

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