Which Type Of Potential Energy Is?

Potential energy is the stored energy an object has due to its position or chemical configuration. There are several different types of potential energy that can be found all around us. Some common examples include gravitational potential energy, elastic potential energy, chemical potential energy, nuclear potential energy, electric potential energy, and magnetic potential energy.

We encounter potential energy everyday. For example, a book sitting on a table has gravitational potential energy depending on how high the table is. If you stretch or compress a spring, you are storing elastic potential energy. The food you eat contains chemical potential energy that can be released. Nuclear power plants harness the nuclear potential energy stored inside atoms.

Potential energy is an important concept in physics and engineering because it allows us to predict how objects and systems will behave when their potential energy is converted into kinetic energy. Understanding the different types of potential energy is key to utilizing it in useful ways.

Gravitational Potential Energy

Gravitational potential energy is the energy stored in an object due to its height above the ground. The potential energy of an object depends on its mass and height. The formula for gravitational potential energy is:

PE = mgh


  • PE is the potential energy in joules (J)
  • m is the mass of the object in kilograms (kg)
  • g is the acceleration due to gravity, 9.8 m/s2
  • h is the height of the object above the ground in meters (m)

Some examples of gravitational potential energy in everyday life include:

  • A book sitting on a table has potential energy relative to the floor.
  • A rollercoaster at the top of a hill has potential energy that will turn into kinetic energy as it rolls down.
  • A diver at the high board of a pool has potential energy that will turn to kinetic energy as he falls.

The factors that affect gravitational potential energy are:

  • Mass – A heavier object at a given height has greater potential energy.
  • Height – The higher the object, the greater the potential energy.
  • Acceleration due to gravity – Potential energy is directly proportional to the acceleration due to gravity.

Elastic Potential Energy

Elastic potential energy is the potential energy stored in elastic materials that are deformed. It refers to the potential energy within a stretched or compressed spring or rubber band. This energy exists by virtue of the object’s configuration. When the forces acting to deform the object are removed, the object will return to its original shape, releasing the stored elastic potential energy.

The calculation of elastic potential energy involves Hooke’s Law, which states that the force F needed to extend or compress a spring by some distance x scales linearly with respect to that distance. The law is usually expressed as:

F = -kx

Where k is the spring constant that depends on the spring’s stiffness. The minus sign indicates that the restoring force always acts in the opposite direction of the displacement.

The potential energy U stored in a spring is equal to the work done in stretching or compressing the spring and is given by:

U = 1/2 kx2

Examples of elastic potential energy include a stretched rubber band, a compressed spring, or a stretched bow ready to fire an arrow. The energy is stored in the deformation of the material’s shape. When released, the material will return to its original form, converting the potential energy into kinetic energy.

Chemical Potential Energy

Chemical potential energy is the potential energy stored in the chemical bonds between atoms and molecules. It is the energy released or absorbed during a chemical reaction or phase transition of a substance. For example, the food we eat contains chemical potential energy from the bonds between atoms that is released as thermal energy when our bodies metabolize the food. Other examples of chemical potential energy include:

  • Batteries – The chemical reactions that take place in batteries release electricity.
  • Fuels – Gasoline, propane, and other fuels release energy when they undergo combustion reactions with oxygen.
  • Explosives – Substances like TNT, dynamite, and gunpowder contain a huge amount of chemical potential energy that is rapidly released in an explosion.

The amount of chemical potential energy stored in a substance depends on the types of bonds it contains. Substances with very reactive bonds capable of explosive release of energy have high chemical potential energy. Chemical potential energy can be converted into kinetic energy when the chemical bonds are broken and the atoms rearrange into more stable molecules. For example, the chemical energy in gasoline is converted into kinetic energy of motion in a car engine. The more chemical potential energy a fuel contains, the more useful kinetic energy can be extracted from it.

Nuclear Potential Energy

Nuclear potential energy refers to the energy stored within an atom’s nucleus. It is one of the most concentrated forms of potential energy due to Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence equation, E=mc2. This states that mass and energy are interchangeable. Even a small amount of mass contains an enormous amount of potential energy.

The nuclear potential energy comes from the nuclear binding energy that holds the protons and neutrons together within the nucleus. The exact amount of nuclear potential energy depends on the specific isotope of the atom. Larger atoms that have more protons and neutrons require more nuclear binding energy to remain stable.

Nuclear potential energy can be harnessed through nuclear fission or fusion reactions. In nuclear fission, a heavy unstable nucleus splits apart into lighter nuclei, releasing energy in the process. Nuclear power plants use controlled nuclear fission reactions within uranium or plutonium atoms to generate electricity. Nuclear fusion works in the opposite direction, combining light nuclei into heavier ones and releasing energy. Fusion reactions power the sun and other stars, but the technology to control fusion for power production on Earth is still in development.

Both fission and fusion convert a fraction of the nuclear potential energy into useful kinetic energy that can do work. Nuclear potential energy is millions of times more concentrated than chemical energy, making it among the most efficient forms of potential energy. However, it also comes with risks, like radiation and radioactive waste byproducts. Proper procedures need to be followed to safely harness nuclear potential energy.

Electric Potential Energy

Electric potential energy is the energy stored in electric fields. It is equal to the work needed to assemble a configuration of charges, or the work obtained by separating charges. The electric potential energy U of a system of point charges q1, q2, …, qN at positions r1, r2, …, rN is given by the formula:

U = (1/2)ΣiΣj≠i (qi qj)/|ri – rj|

Where qi and qj are the magnitudes of charges i and j respectively, ri and rj are the positions of charges i and j respectively, and |ri – rj| is the distance between charges i and j. The formula shows that the electric potential energy increases in proportion to the product of the charges and inversely with the distance between them.

Some examples of electric potential energy in action include:

  • Energy stored in a capacitor – the electric field between the plates contains potential energy.
  • Energy stored in the electric field between two charged particles.
  • Energy stored in the electric field within a wire with a current flowing through it.

In all these cases, work was required to move charges and assemble the electric fields. This work gets stored as electric potential energy.

Magnetic Potential Energy

Magnetic potential energy is the potential energy stored in a magnetic field. It is the amount of work required to establish a magnetic field. The formula for magnetic potential energy is:

U = (B2/2μ0)V


  • U is the magnetic potential energy
  • B is the magnetic field strength
  • μ0 is the permeability of free space constant
  • V is the volume of the magnetic field

Some common examples of magnetic potential energy are seen in permanent magnets. The magnetic field created by the aligned domains in a permanent magnet contains magnetic potential energy. This stored energy allows the magnet to exert forces and do work on other magnets or magnetic materials.

Magnetic potential energy is closely related to electric potential energy. Moving electric charges create magnetic fields, so magnets can store energy from the motion of charges. Magnetic potential energy ultimately comes from the electric potential energy of moving charges.

Comparing Types of Potential Energy

The different types of potential energy can store vastly different amounts of energy per unit mass or volume. For example, nuclear potential energy releases millions of times more energy than chemical potential energy per unit mass when converting mass to energy. Here is a comparison of the relative amounts of energy stored in each type of potential energy from most to least:

  1. Nuclear potential energy
  2. Rest mass energy
  3. Elastic potential energy
  4. Electric potential energy
  5. Magnetic potential energy
  6. Gravitational potential energy
  7. Chemical potential energy

Each type of potential energy also tends to be used for different applications based on its properties. For example, gravitational potential energy is commonly used for hydroelectric power. Elastic potential energy is used in springs and other elastic devices. Chemical potential energy is harvested from fuels and food. Nuclear potential energy is used in nuclear power plants and weapons.

Potential energy can also be converted between types. For instance, chemical potential energy in gasoline can be converted to kinetic energy in a car engine. That kinetic energy is then partially converted to gravitational potential energy as the car drives uphill. With energy conversions, some energy is always lost to heat and inefficiencies based on the laws of thermodynamics.

Applications of Potential Energy

Potential energy has many practical applications, especially in mechanical systems. For example, a compressed spring stores elastic potential energy that can be used to propel objects. Water stored behind a dam contains gravitational potential energy that can spin turbines to generate electricity. Batteries store chemical potential energy that can power everything from small devices to electric vehicles.

Potential energy storage allows the capture of energy that can be used on demand. Renewable energy sources like wind and sunlight can be intermittent, so storing the energy they produce as potential energy allows it to be used when needed. Pumped hydro facilities store gravitational potential energy by pumping water uphill into reservoirs so it can flow downhill through turbines later to generate electricity. Compressed air energy storage works similarly using elastic potential energy.

The law of conservation of energy states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. This means that when potential energy is used and released, it is converted into another type of energy like kinetic, electrical, etc. For example, the chemical potential energy stored in a battery is converted to electrical energy and then to kinetic energy to spin the wheels of an electric car. The total energy remains constant.


In summary, potential energy is the stored energy an object has due to its position or state. The main types of potential energy are gravitational, elastic, chemical, nuclear, electric, and magnetic. Each type has its own characteristics and is useful for different applications. Understanding potential energy is crucial as it is one of the fundamental forms of energy in our universe.

Potential energy plays an essential role across many domains including engineering, chemistry, and physics. It enables us to harness natural forces and processes to perform useful work. Potential energy can be found everywhere from stretched rubber bands to batteries to nuclear reactors. Being able to utilize potential energy allows humans to accomplish amazing feats such as space travel, construction of skyscrapers, and powering cities. Overall, the concept of potential energy is invaluable for comprehending and advancing technology as well as the natural world.

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