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....

# Potential Energy

We have already seen many examples of energy related to the distance between interacting objects. When two objects participate in an attractive noncontact force, energy is required to bring them farther apart. In both of the perpetual motion machines that started off the previous chapter, one of the types of energy involved was the energy associated with the distance between the balls and the earth, which attract each other gravitationally. In the perpetual motion machine with the magnet on the pedestal, there was also energy associated with the distance between the magnet and the iron ball, which were attracting each other.

The opposite happens with repulsive forces: two socks with the same type of static electric charge will repel each other, and cannot be pushed closer together without supplying energy.

In general, the term potential energy, with algebra symbol PE, is used for the energy associated with the distance between two objects that attract or repel each other via a force that depends on the distance between them. Forces that are not determined by distance do not have potential energy associated with them. For instance, the normal force acts only between objects that have zero distance between them, and depends on other factors besides the fact that the distance is zero. There is no potential energy associated with the normal force.

The following are some commonplace examples of potential energy:

 The skater has converted all his kinetic energy into potential energy on the way up the side of the pool. Photo by J.D. Rogge, www.sonic.net/~shawn.

#### gravitational potential energy:

The skateboarder in the photo has risen from the bottom of the pool, converting kinetic energy into gravitational potential energy. After being at rest for an instant, he will go back down, converting PE back into KE.

#### magnetic potential energy:

When a magnetic compass needle is allowed to rotate, the poles of the compass change their distances from the earth's north and south magnetic poles, converting magnetic potential energy into kinetic energy. (Eventually the kinetic energy is all changed into heat by friction, and the needle settles down in the position that minimizes its potential energy.)

#### electrical potential energy:

Socks coming out of the dryer cling together because of attractive electrical forces. Energy is required in order to separate them.

#### potential energy of bending or stretching:

The force between the two ends of a spring depends on the distance between them, i.e., on the length of the spring. If a car is pressed down on its shock absorbers and then released, the potential energy stored in the spring is transformed into kinetic and gravitational potential energy as the car bounces back up.

I have deliberately avoided introducing the term potential energy up until this point, because it tends to produce unfortunate connotations in the minds of students who have not yet been inoculated with a careful description of the construction of a numerical energy scale. Specifically, there is a tendency to generalize the term inappropriately to apply to any situation where there is the potential for something to happen: I took a break from digging, but I had potential energy because I knew I'd be ready to work hard again in a few minutes.

Last Update: 2009-06-21