Which One Has Potential Energy?

Definition of Potential Energy

Potential energy is the energy stored in an object due to its position or chemical composition. More specifically, it is energy that is waiting to be released or converted into motion. An object can store potential energy based on its height above the ground, its elasticity, its chemical bonds, or interactions between magnetic fields or electrical charges.

For example, a ball held high above the ground has potential energy due to gravity. When released, this potential energy is converted into kinetic energy as the ball falls. Similarly, a compressed or stretched spring has potential energy that can be released to move connected objects. The configuration of atoms in chemical compounds also contains potential energy that may be released in chemical reactions.

Potential energy is present virtually anywhere there are forces, fields, or chemical bonds that can shift. It exists as long as the object maintains its configuration. Once released, potential energy transforms into kinetic energy, thermal energy, or radiant energy. The concept of potential energy is extremely useful in physics and engineering for describing systems before and after energy is transferred or transformed.

Examples of Potential Energy

There are several common types of potential energy:

Gravitational Potential Energy

Gravitational potential energy depends on the height of an object. The higher the object, the greater its gravitational potential energy. For example, lifting a book from the floor to a bookshelf increases its gravitational potential energy. The energy comes from the work done against gravity to lift the object.

ball held above ground

Elastic Potential Energy

Elastic potential energy is stored in elastic materials that are stretched or compressed. For instance, a stretched rubber band has elastic potential energy. The energy comes from deforming the elastic material – the more it’s stretched or compressed, the more elastic potential energy it has.

Chemical Potential Energy

Chemical potential energy is stored in the chemical bonds of substances like batteries, food, fuel and explosives. Chemical reactions can release this potential energy, such as when a battery powers a device or when food is metabolized in the body.

Calculating Potential Energy

The amount of potential energy an object has depends on several factors:

Mass: Heavier objects have more potential energy than lighter objects at the same height, because gravity exerts more force on objects with greater mass.

Height: The higher up an object is, the greater its potential energy. This is because an object at a higher elevation has more energy to convert to kinetic energy as it falls.

Elastic constant: For elastic potential energy like springs, the elastic constant k determines how much the spring stretches or compresses. More deformation leads to more potential energy stored.

Chemical bonds: The types of molecular bonds in a chemical substance determine its potential chemical energy that can be released in a reaction.

The formula for gravitational potential energy is:

PE = mgh

Where m is mass, g is gravitational acceleration, and h is height. This shows that an object’s potential energy increases linearly with height.

For elastic potential energy, the formula is:

PE = 1/2 kx2

Where k is the elastic constant of the spring or material, and x is the displacement distance.

Relationship to Kinetic Energy

Potential energy and kinetic energy are closely related concepts in physics. Potential energy refers to stored energy due to an object’s position or internal structure, while kinetic energy refers to energy associated with motion. According to the work-energy principle, potential energy can be converted into kinetic energy when a force displaces an object. For example, when an object falls, its potential energy is converted into kinetic energy. The formula for kinetic energy is:

Kinetic Energy = 1/2 * mass * velocity^2

As the object falls, its velocity and therefore kinetic energy increases as potential energy decreases. The total mechanical energy, which is the sum of potential and kinetic energy, remains constant. This principle is known as the conservation of mechanical energy and is a core concept in physics. Potential energy is not destroyed, but rather converted into motion when forces allow. Understanding the relationship between potential and kinetic energy provides great insight into how energy transitions between different states in mechanical systems.

Conservation of Mechanical Energy

An important law in physics is the conservation of mechanical energy in closed systems. This states that the total mechanical energy in a closed system remains constant over time. Mechanical energy refers to the sum of an object’s kinetic energy and potential energy.

Kinetic energy is the energy an object has due to its motion. The kinetic energy of an object depends on its mass and velocity. Potential energy is stored energy due to an object’s position or configuration. There are different types of potential energy like gravitational, elastic, and chemical potential energy.

In a closed system, the total mechanical energy is the sum of all kinetic and potential energies of objects in the system. According to the law of conservation of mechanical energy, this total energy remains unchanged, it is conserved over time. The kinetic and potential energies within the system can convert back and forth into each other, but the total amount of mechanical energy in the system stays the same.

For example, a ball rolling down a hill converts its potential energy into kinetic energy as it descends and speeds up. But the total mechanical energy before and after is unchanged, neglecting losses to heat and air resistance. This conservation law is very useful in physics for analyzing mechanical systems and solving problems.

Potential Energy Graphs

Potential energy can be illustrated on a graph that shows the energy stored in a system at different positions. The vertical axis represents the amount of potential energy, while the horizontal axis represents position. For example, a graph may show the gravitational potential energy of an object at different heights above the ground. At higher positions, the object has more potential energy. As the object falls, it loses potential energy and gains kinetic energy. The total mechanical energy remains constant.

Springs also provide a good example of potential energy graphs. When a spring is stretched or compressed, it stores elastic potential energy. The more a spring is displaced from its relaxed length, the more potential energy it has. A graph of spring potential energy would show a parabolic curve, with the minimum potential energy occurring at the spring’s natural length.

Potential energy graphs allow you to visualize how the stored energy in a system changes at different positions. The curves and shapes of the graphs reflect characteristics of the force or interaction storing the energy.

Examples in Real Life

Potential energy can be observed in many real-world examples that we encounter in everyday life.


One of the most common examples is hydropower from dams. The water held behind the dam has gravitational potential energy due to its height above the ground. As the water falls through the dam, this potential energy gets converted into kinetic energy which spins a turbine to generate electricity.


Slingshots demonstrate potential energy as well. The elastic band is stretched to store elastic potential energy. When released, this energy gets transferred to the projectile, giving it kinetic energy to fly through the air.

Wind-Up Toys

Wind-up toys like tops and cars also exhibit potential energy. As you turn the key or knob, you do work against the spring or elastic inside, storing elastic potential energy. As the toy unwinds, this stored energy is converted into kinetic energy to move the toy.

Applications and Technologies

Potential energy has many practical applications in technologies we use every day.


Batteries store chemical potential energy and convert it into electrical energy. The chemical reactions inside a battery release electrons, which can then flow through a circuit to power devices. The amount of potential energy stored in a battery determines how long it can provide power before needing to be recharged.


Hydroelectric dams take advantage of gravitational potential energy by using falling water to turn turbines and generate electricity. The water behind the dam has potential energy that gets converted into kinetic energy and then electrical energy. Dams provide a reliable and renewable energy source in many parts of the world.


Springs exhibit potential energy when they are compressed or stretched. The tension of the coiled spring material provides stored mechanical potential energy. This allows springs to rebound back to their original shape and transfer the potential energy into kinetic energy. Springs are used in everything from mattresses and vehicles suspensions to toys and clocks.

Practice Problems

Practice is key for mastering the calculation of potential energy. Let’s go through some sample problems.

Problem 1: Calculate the potential energy of a 5kg book that is placed 3m above the ground.

To solve:
The equation for gravitational potential energy is PE=mgh, where m is mass, g is acceleration due to gravity (9.8m/s2), and h is height.

Plugging in the values:

PE = (5kg)(9.8m/s2)(3m)

PE = 147 J

The potential energy of the book is 147J.

Problem 2: A 12kg bicycle is lifted 2.5m off the ground. What is its gravitational potential energy?

PE = (12kg)(9.8m/s2)(2.5m)

PE = 294 J

The potential energy of the bicycle is 294J.


Test your understanding of potential energy with this quiz!

Multiple Choice

1. Which of the following is an example of potential energy?

A. A book sitting on a table
B. A bicycle in motion

C. The wind blowing leaves on a tree
D. A stretched rubber band

2. How is potential energy calculated?

A. Mass x Height

B. Force x Distance
C. Acceleration x Time
D. Velocity x Time

Short Answer

1. Briefly explain the relationship between potential and kinetic energy.

2. Provide an example of potential energy being converted into kinetic energy from everyday life.

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