Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information.... 
Home Conservation Laws Work: The Transfer of Mechanical Energy Work and Potential Energy  
Search the VIAS Library  Index  
Work and Potential EnergyThe techniques for calculating work can also be applied to the calculation of potential energy. If a certain force depends only on the distance between the two participating objects, then the energy released by changing the distance between them is defined as the potential energy, and the amount of potential energy lost equals minus the work done by the force, ΔPE = W . The minus sign occurs because positive work indicates that the potential energy is being expended and converted to some other form. It is sometimes convenient to pick some arbitrary position as a reference position, and derive an equation for once and for all that gives the potential energy relative to this position PE_{x} = W_{ref→x} . [potential energy at a point x] To find the energy transferred into or out of potential energy, one then subtracts two different values of this equation. These equations might almost make it look as though work and energy were the same thing, but they are not. First, potential energy measures the energy that a system has stored in it, while work measures how much energy is transferred in or out. Second, the techniques for calculating work can be used to find the amount of energy transferred in many situations where there is no potential energy involved, as when we calculate the amount of kinetic energy transformed into heat by a car's brake shoes.
Although the equations derived in the previous two examples may seem arcane and not particularly useful except for toy designers and rocket scientists, their usefulness is actually greater than it appears. The equation for the potential energy of a spring can be adapted to any other case in which an object is compressed, stretched, twisted, or bent. While you are not likely to use the equation for gravitational potential energy for anything practical, it is directly analogous to an equation that is extremely useful in chemistry, which is the equation for the potential energy of an electron at a distance r from the nucleus of its atom. As discussed in more detail later in the course, the electrical force between the electron and the nucleus is proportional to 1/r^{2}, just like the gravitational force between two masses. Since the equation for the force is of the same form, so is the equation for the potential energy.
Discussion Questions


Home Conservation Laws Work: The Transfer of Mechanical Energy Work and Potential Energy 