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What Is a Potential Energy Equation?

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  • Written By: Richard Nelson
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 22 November 2016
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    2003-2016
    Conjecture Corporation
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Several equations used in science come from a potential energy equation. A general potential energy equation means that the work done to a system is equal to the potential energy lost. Potential energy is any stored energy in a system that is lost when work is done. It comes in many common forms, like gravitational potential energy lost when something drops toward Earth. In every form, a potential energy equation will show where energy came from to perform work.

Springs store energy in the form of elastic potential energy that is released when the spring is allowed to relax. The stretching allows energy to be stored, and the potential energy for a spring equals the amount of work the spring can do when it relaxes. Many other objects store energy in the form of elastic potential energy, including rubber bands and guitar strings. Both are stretched harder to cause a quicker vibration which equates to more work because of more elastic potential energy.

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Gravity can store energy because all mass is slightly attracted to other mass. The potential energy equation for gravity comes in many forms. Earth’s gravity stores potential energy and does work when objects are lifted away and allowed to attract back toward Earth. As the cart climbs up a hill, its energy is being stored. When the cart goes over the hill, all of the stored potential energy is released, causing the cart to move faster, or do work. Other potential energy equations for gravity involve space orbits, galactic motion, and black holes.

Changing temperature represents work, and a potential energy equation for chemicals usually measures a change in temperature. Chemicals store energy in the form of bonds. These bonds can break and change position to release potential energy and increase temperature. Measuring this change shows how much potential energy a chemical reaction has. Burning gasoline shows how a liquid stores potential energy and releases it to produce extreme heat.

Nuclear power like fission is an example of nuclear potential energy. Power is equal to work done over a certain amount of time, and nuclear power can be calculated from a nuclear potential energy equation. This energy is stored in the very tight connections between the parts that make up atoms. During nuclear fission, atoms absorb extra parts and become unstable. Once the atoms break down to more stable atoms, they release energy stored in the tight connections that break.

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