potential energy

the energy of a body or a system with respect to the position of the body or the arrangement of the particles of the system. Cf. kinetic energy.
[1850-55]

* * *

Energy stored by an object by virtue of its position.

For example, an object raised above the ground acquires potential energy equal to the work done against the force of gravity; the energy is released as kinetic energy when it falls back to the ground. Similarly, a stretched spring has stored potential energy that is released when the spring is returned to its unstretched state. Other forms of potential energy include electrical potential energy, chemical energy, and nuclear energy.

* * *

      stored energy that depends upon the relative position of various parts of a system. A spring has more potential energy when it is compressed or stretched. A steel ball has more potential energy raised above the ground than it has after falling to the Earth. In the raised position it is capable of doing more work. Potential energy is a property of a system and not of an individual body or particle; the system composed of the Earth and the raised ball, for example, has more potential energy as the two are farther separated.

      Potential energy arises in systems with parts that exert forces on each other of a magnitude dependent on the configuration, or relative position, of the parts. In the case of the Earth-ball system, the force of gravity between the two depends only on the distance separating them. The work done in separating them farther, or in raising the ball, transfers additional energy to the system, where it is stored as gravitational potential energy.

      Potential energy also includes other forms. The energy stored between the plates of a charged capacitor is electrical potential energy. What is commonly known as chemical energy, the capacity of a substance to do work or to evolve heat by undergoing a change of composition, may be regarded as potential energy resulting from the mutual forces among its molecules and atoms. Nuclear energy is also a form of potential energy.

      The potential energy of a system of particles depends only on their initial and final configurations; it is independent of the path the particles travel. In the case of the steel ball and the earth, if the initial position of the ball is ground level and the final position is 10 feet above the ground, the potential energy is the same, no matter how or by what route the ball was raised. The value of potential energy is arbitrary and relative to the choice of reference point. In the case given above, the system would have twice as much potential energy if the initial position were the bottom of a 10-foot-deep hole.

      Gravitational potential energy near the Earth's surface may be computed by multiplying the weight of an object by its distance above the reference point. In bound systems, such as atoms, in which electrons are held by the electric force of attraction to nuclei, the zero reference for potential energy is a distance from the nucleus so great that the electric force is not detectable. In this case, bound electrons have negative potential energy, and those very far away have zero potential energy.

      Potential energy may be converted into energy of motion, called kinetic energy, and in turn to other forms such as electric energy. Thus, water behind a dam flows to lower levels through turbines that turn electric generators, producing electric energy plus some unusable heat energy resulting from turbulence and friction.

      Historically, potential energy was included with kinetic energy as a form of mechanical energy so that the total energy in gravitational systems could be calculated as a constant.

* * *


Universalium. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Potential Energy —   Energy available due to position …   Energy terms

  • Potential energy — Potential Po*ten tial, a. [Cf. F. potentiel. See {Potency}.] 1. Being potent; endowed with energy adequate to a result; efficacious; influential. [Obs.] And hath in his effect a voice potential. Shak. [1913 Webster] 2. Existing in possibility,… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • potential energy — n the energy that a piece of matter has because of its position or because of the arrangement of parts * * * the energy that a body has due to its position, equal to the work required to move the body to that position from some reference… …   Medical dictionary

  • potential energy — ► NOUN Physics ▪ energy possessed by a body by virtue of its position or state. Compare with KINETIC ENERGY(Cf. ↑kinetic energy) …   English terms dictionary

  • potential energy — n. energy that is the result of relative position or structure instead of motion, as in a compressed spring …   English World dictionary

  • Potential energy — This article is about a form of energy in physics. For the statistical method, see Potential energy statistics. Classical mechanics Newton s Second Law …   Wikipedia

  • potential energy — the energy stored in a raised object (e.g. the weights in a grandfather clock). Potential energy equals mgh, where m is mass, g is the acceleration of gravity, and h is the vertical distance from a reference location. It is called potential… …   Mechanics glossary

  • potential energy — noun the mechanical energy that a body has by virtue of its position; stored energy (Freq. 5) • Syn: ↑P.E. • Hypernyms: ↑mechanical energy • Hyponyms: ↑elastic energy, ↑elastic potential energy …   Useful english dictionary

  • potential energy — po,tential energy noun uncount SCIENCE the energy that a body or system has stored because of its position or condition. For example, a raised weight has potential energy …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • potential energy — UK / US noun [uncountable] physics the energy that a body or system has stored because of its position or condition. For example, a raised weight has potential energy …   English dictionary

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.