What Does Energy Look Like?

What does energy look like?

Energy is defined as the capacity to do work. It exists in various forms such as heat, light, motion, sound, and more. The goal of this piece is to visualize different forms of energy in a way that makes them more understandable. Developing energy literacy is incredibly important, as energy plays a fundamental role across all aspects of society. Understanding energy allows us to use it more efficiently, develop better technologies, and make informed decisions that impact our lives.

According to The Importance of Understanding Energy Systems – SAPT, “The ability to understand energy, how we use it, and the consequences of that use, matters a great deal when it comes to everything from performing well athletically to combating climate change.” Visualizations aim to build this understanding by showing energy concepts that are often abstract or invisible to the naked eye.

Forms of Energy

There are several main forms of energy according to physics: 1

Potential energy – The stored energy within an object due to its position or state. For example, a ball at the top of a hill has potential energy due to gravity.

Kinetic energy – The energy of an object in motion. For instance, a rolling ball has kinetic energy.

Thermal energy – The internal energy within a system due to molecular motion. Heat is an example of thermal energy.

Electrical energy – The energy from the flow of electric charge. Lightning is an example of electrical energy.

Chemical energy – The energy stored within the bonds of atoms and molecules. Batteries and food contain chemical energy.

Nuclear energy – The energy stored within the nucleus of an atom, released through nuclear reactions. Nuclear power plants produce nuclear energy.

Energy Transformations

Energy is constantly transforming between different forms. Some common examples of energy transformations include:

Chemical to kinetic energy: When fuels like gasoline, propane, or wood burn, the chemical energy stored in their molecular bonds is released and transformed into heat and kinetic energy.

Kinetic to thermal energy: When you rub your hands together, the kinetic energy of the motion transforms into thermal energy in the form of heat.

Mechanical to electrical energy: In a hydroelectric dam, the mechanical energy of falling water turns a turbine, which then transforms the energy into electrical energy.

Nuclear to thermal energy: In a nuclear power plant, nuclear energy locked inside atoms transforms into thermal energy to heat water into steam that drives a turbine and generator.

Electrical to light and thermal energy: When an incandescent light bulb turns on, the electrical energy transforms into light energy that we see and thermal energy in the form of heat.

Radiant to chemical energy: In photosynthesis, plants absorb radiant light energy from the sun and transform it into chemical energy stored in glucose molecules.

As these examples illustrate, energy is constantly changing forms in our everyday lives. Understanding these transformations is key to harnessing energy to power human civilization.[1]

Visualizing Motion Energy

Kinetic energy is the energy of motion. It can be visualized as a field or aura surrounding moving objects that quantifies their motion energy. According to the kinetic energy formula, the kinetic energy of an object depends on its mass and velocity:

Kinetic energy formula

This means that more massive, faster moving objects will have greater kinetic energy. Some ways to visualize kinetic energy include:

  • Energy bar charts showing the kinetic energy of objects with different masses and speeds
  • Heat map overlays on moving objects, with more intense color denoting greater kinetic energy
  • Animated “splashes” or trailing effects behind objects that increase with speed
  • Graphing kinetic energy vs. velocity for objects of fixed mass

These types of visualizations make the abstract concept of kinetic energy tangible. They illustrate how factors like mass and velocity determine an object’s motion energy. Animations are especially helpful for conveying kinetic energy changes over time.

Visualizing Heat Energy

Heat energy is invisible to the naked eye, but we can visualize it using infrared imaging technology. Infrared cameras detect infrared radiation, which is emitted by all objects based on their temperature. Warmer objects emit more infrared radiation and appear brighter in infrared images. This allows us to see variations in temperature.

Infrared imaging translates temperature data into a visible color spectrum. Different colors represent different temperatures, with blue being the coolest and white/red being the warmest. This color mapping allows us to visually interpret heat patterns and distributions.

Infrared imaging is used to visualize heat transfer processes like conduction and convection. Conduction is the direct transfer of thermal energy through physical contact, while convection relies on the motion of fluids like air or water. Infrared images and videos can show heat spreading through conduction in solid materials, as well as hot and cold fluid currents from convection.

For example, infrared cameras can capture heat radiating from electrical wires and components, helping identify issues like loose connections or overloaded circuits. Infrared imaging also allows meteorologists to track air and water currents based on temperature variations.

By converting temperature into color, infrared technology grants us visual access to the thermal world around us. It makes the invisible visible, transforming raw data into colorful images and videos that illustrate the nature of heat.


Visualizing Thermal Energy – YouTube

Visualizing Thermal Energy and Heat Islands

Visualizing Electrical Energy

Electricity is a form of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles like electrons. While we cannot see electricity directly, we can visualize it in different ways.

One common way to visualize electrical energy flow is through circuit diagrams. These diagrams use symbols to represent the different components in a circuit, like batteries, resistors, and wires. Arrows along the wires indicate the direction of current flow. Analyzing these diagrams helps engineers design, troubleshoot, and optimize electrical systems and devices [1].

Electric fields that surround charged particles can also be depicted visually. Field line diagrams use lines or arrows to represent the strength and direction of the electric field at different points in space. Denser field lines indicate regions of higher field strength. These diagrams demonstrate how electric fields govern the forces and motions of charged particles.

In homes and buildings, the paths of hidden electrical wiring may be illustrated in wiring diagrams. These simplified drawings reveal how power enters a structure and branches out to distribute electricity. Icons show the locations of outlets, switches, appliances, and junction boxes. Wiring diagrams are indispensable for safely planning, installing, and modifying electrical systems.

Visualizing electrical phenomena through diagrams, field line drawings, and wiring schematics enhances our understanding of electricity and how we harness it. Interactively viewing electrical flows empowers designers, engineers, electricians, and curious learners.

Chemical energy is the energy stored in the bonds between atoms that make up molecules and compounds. Chemical reactions involve breaking and forming molecular bonds which absorbs or releases energy.

Visualizing Chemical Energy

Chemical reactions can be visualized through chemical reaction diagrams that use symbols to represent atoms and arrows to indicate bonds breaking and forming. For example, the combustion reaction of methane and oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and water can be depicted as:

CH4 + 2O2 → CO2 + 2H2O

The single and double arrows indicate bonds breaking in the reactants (methane and oxygen molecules) and new bonds forming in the products (carbon dioxide and water molecules). As bonds break, energy is absorbed, and as new bonds form, energy is released.

Chemical reactions can also be animated to show the molecular changes taking place. Combustion reactions like burning natural gas or gasoline illustrate the conversion of chemical potential energy into thermal energy and motion. The chemical energy stored in the molecular bonds is released as bonds break and reform to create new molecules, generating heat and light energy that powers many energy technologies.

Visualizations make chemical changes more tangible and easier to comprehend. They reveal the hidden world happening at the atomic and molecular level during chemical reactions and energy conversions.


Visualizing Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy comes from the splitting (fission) or joining (fusion) of atomic nuclei. It is commonly visualized through diagrams and animations showing radioactive decay, nuclear fission in a reactor core, or nuclear fusion inside stars.

Radioactive decay involves unstable atomic nuclei breaking down and releasing energy in the form of radiation. Animations of radioactive decay show the emission of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation as nuclei transform from one element to another through the loss of protons and neutrons. These vividly illustrate why radiation can be dangerous.

Nuclear fission splits large nuclei like uranium or plutonium into smaller nuclei, neutrons, and a large amount of energy. Reactor core animations and cutaway diagrams depict the fission chain reaction taking place within fuel rods, moderated by control rods and coolant. We can visualize nuclear power generation happening on an atomic scale.

Nuclear fusion joins hydrogen nuclei under extreme heat and pressure to form helium. This process powers stars and hydrogen bombs. Fusion reactor animations envision achieving sustained net energy output by containing fusion reactions using magnetic fields. Harnessing fusion could provide limitless clean energy.

These visual models allow us to see the invisible atomic-level processes underlying nuclear energy. Radiation, fission, and fusion can be hard to grasp conceptually, so animations and diagrams give helpful visual explanations.

Source: https://energycentral.com/c/ec/environmental-benefits-natural-gas-being-questioned-propublica

Interactive Visualizations

Interactive visualizations can provide significant benefits for learning about energy concepts and promoting sustainable energy behaviors. With interactive apps and simulations, users can directly manipulate parameters and immediately see the visual results.

For example, the Energiefluss simulation allows users to visually trace the flow of energy through a house. Users can click on appliances and systems to see how they consume electricity, gas, or oil. This interactivity helps reinforce concepts of energy transformations from source fuels to end uses.

Other apps like Energy Challenge gamify energy systems, allowing users to virtually design and operate renewable energy grids. The simulations respond in real-time to user choices, providing engaging feedback.

Overall, these types of interactive visualizations can vividly demonstrate complex energy concepts that are difficult to grasp from static images or text alone. The hands-on experiences strengthen learning and connections to real-world energy usage.


Energy comes in many forms that we encounter in our daily lives. This content has visually explored various types of energy like motion, heat, electrical, chemical, and nuclear energy through engaging interactive elements. Summarizing some key visualizations, we saw kinetic energy in action with balls bouncing and pendulums swinging. Heat energy was visualized through animations of molecules vibrating faster as temperatures rise. Electricity flowing through wires lit up lightbulbs, showcasing electrical energy. Chemical energy was illustrated via chemical reaction animations and binding energy diagrams. Nuclear energy from fission and fusion was depicted through 3D models of atoms splitting and joining.

Understanding the different forms energy takes and how energy transforms from one type to another is an important aspect of energy literacy. With greater energy literacy, people can make more informed decisions related to energy usage in their everyday lives. Whether it’s choosing an energy efficient appliance or deciding between different modes of transportation, comprehending energy on a deeper level empowers us to take charge of our energy future. My hope is that through interactive and engaging visualizations, this piece has contributed to greater energy literacy so we can build a more sustainable energy future.

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