Skip to Content
OpenStax Logo
College Physics for AP® Courses

7.4 Conservative Forces and Potential Energy

College Physics for AP® Courses7.4 Conservative Forces and Potential Energy
Buy book
  1. Preface
  2. 1 Introduction: The Nature of Science and Physics
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 1.1 Physics: An Introduction
    3. 1.2 Physical Quantities and Units
    4. 1.3 Accuracy, Precision, and Significant Figures
    5. 1.4 Approximation
    6. Glossary
    7. Section Summary
    8. Conceptual Questions
    9. Problems & Exercises
  3. 2 Kinematics
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 2.1 Displacement
    3. 2.2 Vectors, Scalars, and Coordinate Systems
    4. 2.3 Time, Velocity, and Speed
    5. 2.4 Acceleration
    6. 2.5 Motion Equations for Constant Acceleration in One Dimension
    7. 2.6 Problem-Solving Basics for One Dimensional Kinematics
    8. 2.7 Falling Objects
    9. 2.8 Graphical Analysis of One Dimensional Motion
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
    14. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  4. 3 Two-Dimensional Kinematics
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 3.1 Kinematics in Two Dimensions: An Introduction
    3. 3.2 Vector Addition and Subtraction: Graphical Methods
    4. 3.3 Vector Addition and Subtraction: Analytical Methods
    5. 3.4 Projectile Motion
    6. 3.5 Addition of Velocities
    7. Glossary
    8. Section Summary
    9. Conceptual Questions
    10. Problems & Exercises
    11. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  5. 4 Dynamics: Force and Newton's Laws of Motion
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 4.1 Development of Force Concept
    3. 4.2 Newton's First Law of Motion: Inertia
    4. 4.3 Newton's Second Law of Motion: Concept of a System
    5. 4.4 Newton's Third Law of Motion: Symmetry in Forces
    6. 4.5 Normal, Tension, and Other Examples of Force
    7. 4.6 Problem-Solving Strategies
    8. 4.7 Further Applications of Newton's Laws of Motion
    9. 4.8 Extended Topic: The Four Basic Forces—An Introduction
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
    14. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  6. 5 Further Applications of Newton's Laws: Friction, Drag, and Elasticity
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 5.1 Friction
    3. 5.2 Drag Forces
    4. 5.3 Elasticity: Stress and Strain
    5. Glossary
    6. Section Summary
    7. Conceptual Questions
    8. Problems & Exercises
    9. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  7. 6 Gravitation and Uniform Circular Motion
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 6.1 Rotation Angle and Angular Velocity
    3. 6.2 Centripetal Acceleration
    4. 6.3 Centripetal Force
    5. 6.4 Fictitious Forces and Non-inertial Frames: The Coriolis Force
    6. 6.5 Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation
    7. 6.6 Satellites and Kepler's Laws: An Argument for Simplicity
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
    12. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  8. 7 Work, Energy, and Energy Resources
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 7.1 Work: The Scientific Definition
    3. 7.2 Kinetic Energy and the Work-Energy Theorem
    4. 7.3 Gravitational Potential Energy
    5. 7.4 Conservative Forces and Potential Energy
    6. 7.5 Nonconservative Forces
    7. 7.6 Conservation of Energy
    8. 7.7 Power
    9. 7.8 Work, Energy, and Power in Humans
    10. 7.9 World Energy Use
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
    15. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  9. 8 Linear Momentum and Collisions
    1. Connection for AP® courses
    2. 8.1 Linear Momentum and Force
    3. 8.2 Impulse
    4. 8.3 Conservation of Momentum
    5. 8.4 Elastic Collisions in One Dimension
    6. 8.5 Inelastic Collisions in One Dimension
    7. 8.6 Collisions of Point Masses in Two Dimensions
    8. 8.7 Introduction to Rocket Propulsion
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
    13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  10. 9 Statics and Torque
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 9.1 The First Condition for Equilibrium
    3. 9.2 The Second Condition for Equilibrium
    4. 9.3 Stability
    5. 9.4 Applications of Statics, Including Problem-Solving Strategies
    6. 9.5 Simple Machines
    7. 9.6 Forces and Torques in Muscles and Joints
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
    12. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  11. 10 Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 10.1 Angular Acceleration
    3. 10.2 Kinematics of Rotational Motion
    4. 10.3 Dynamics of Rotational Motion: Rotational Inertia
    5. 10.4 Rotational Kinetic Energy: Work and Energy Revisited
    6. 10.5 Angular Momentum and Its Conservation
    7. 10.6 Collisions of Extended Bodies in Two Dimensions
    8. 10.7 Gyroscopic Effects: Vector Aspects of Angular Momentum
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
    13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  12. 11 Fluid Statics
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 11.1 What Is a Fluid?
    3. 11.2 Density
    4. 11.3 Pressure
    5. 11.4 Variation of Pressure with Depth in a Fluid
    6. 11.5 Pascal’s Principle
    7. 11.6 Gauge Pressure, Absolute Pressure, and Pressure Measurement
    8. 11.7 Archimedes’ Principle
    9. 11.8 Cohesion and Adhesion in Liquids: Surface Tension and Capillary Action
    10. 11.9 Pressures in the Body
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
    15. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  13. 12 Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 12.1 Flow Rate and Its Relation to Velocity
    3. 12.2 Bernoulli’s Equation
    4. 12.3 The Most General Applications of Bernoulli’s Equation
    5. 12.4 Viscosity and Laminar Flow; Poiseuille’s Law
    6. 12.5 The Onset of Turbulence
    7. 12.6 Motion of an Object in a Viscous Fluid
    8. 12.7 Molecular Transport Phenomena: Diffusion, Osmosis, and Related Processes
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
    13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  14. 13 Temperature, Kinetic Theory, and the Gas Laws
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 13.1 Temperature
    3. 13.2 Thermal Expansion of Solids and Liquids
    4. 13.3 The Ideal Gas Law
    5. 13.4 Kinetic Theory: Atomic and Molecular Explanation of Pressure and Temperature
    6. 13.5 Phase Changes
    7. 13.6 Humidity, Evaporation, and Boiling
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
    12. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  15. 14 Heat and Heat Transfer Methods
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 14.1 Heat
    3. 14.2 Temperature Change and Heat Capacity
    4. 14.3 Phase Change and Latent Heat
    5. 14.4 Heat Transfer Methods
    6. 14.5 Conduction
    7. 14.6 Convection
    8. 14.7 Radiation
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
    13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  16. 15 Thermodynamics
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 15.1 The First Law of Thermodynamics
    3. 15.2 The First Law of Thermodynamics and Some Simple Processes
    4. 15.3 Introduction to the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Heat Engines and Their Efficiency
    5. 15.4 Carnot’s Perfect Heat Engine: The Second Law of Thermodynamics Restated
    6. 15.5 Applications of Thermodynamics: Heat Pumps and Refrigerators
    7. 15.6 Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Disorder and the Unavailability of Energy
    8. 15.7 Statistical Interpretation of Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: The Underlying Explanation
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
    13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  17. 16 Oscillatory Motion and Waves
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 16.1 Hooke’s Law: Stress and Strain Revisited
    3. 16.2 Period and Frequency in Oscillations
    4. 16.3 Simple Harmonic Motion: A Special Periodic Motion
    5. 16.4 The Simple Pendulum
    6. 16.5 Energy and the Simple Harmonic Oscillator
    7. 16.6 Uniform Circular Motion and Simple Harmonic Motion
    8. 16.7 Damped Harmonic Motion
    9. 16.8 Forced Oscillations and Resonance
    10. 16.9 Waves
    11. 16.10 Superposition and Interference
    12. 16.11 Energy in Waves: Intensity
    13. Glossary
    14. Section Summary
    15. Conceptual Questions
    16. Problems & Exercises
    17. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  18. 17 Physics of Hearing
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 17.1 Sound
    3. 17.2 Speed of Sound, Frequency, and Wavelength
    4. 17.3 Sound Intensity and Sound Level
    5. 17.4 Doppler Effect and Sonic Booms
    6. 17.5 Sound Interference and Resonance: Standing Waves in Air Columns
    7. 17.6 Hearing
    8. 17.7 Ultrasound
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
    13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  19. 18 Electric Charge and Electric Field
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 18.1 Static Electricity and Charge: Conservation of Charge
    3. 18.2 Conductors and Insulators
    4. 18.3 Conductors and Electric Fields in Static Equilibrium
    5. 18.4 Coulomb’s Law
    6. 18.5 Electric Field: Concept of a Field Revisited
    7. 18.6 Electric Field Lines: Multiple Charges
    8. 18.7 Electric Forces in Biology
    9. 18.8 Applications of Electrostatics
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
    14. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  20. 19 Electric Potential and Electric Field
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 19.1 Electric Potential Energy: Potential Difference
    3. 19.2 Electric Potential in a Uniform Electric Field
    4. 19.3 Electrical Potential Due to a Point Charge
    5. 19.4 Equipotential Lines
    6. 19.5 Capacitors and Dielectrics
    7. 19.6 Capacitors in Series and Parallel
    8. 19.7 Energy Stored in Capacitors
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
    13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  21. 20 Electric Current, Resistance, and Ohm's Law
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 20.1 Current
    3. 20.2 Ohm’s Law: Resistance and Simple Circuits
    4. 20.3 Resistance and Resistivity
    5. 20.4 Electric Power and Energy
    6. 20.5 Alternating Current versus Direct Current
    7. 20.6 Electric Hazards and the Human Body
    8. 20.7 Nerve Conduction–Electrocardiograms
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
    13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  22. 21 Circuits, Bioelectricity, and DC Instruments
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 21.1 Resistors in Series and Parallel
    3. 21.2 Electromotive Force: Terminal Voltage
    4. 21.3 Kirchhoff’s Rules
    5. 21.4 DC Voltmeters and Ammeters
    6. 21.5 Null Measurements
    7. 21.6 DC Circuits Containing Resistors and Capacitors
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
    12. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  23. 22 Magnetism
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 22.1 Magnets
    3. 22.2 Ferromagnets and Electromagnets
    4. 22.3 Magnetic Fields and Magnetic Field Lines
    5. 22.4 Magnetic Field Strength: Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field
    6. 22.5 Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field: Examples and Applications
    7. 22.6 The Hall Effect
    8. 22.7 Magnetic Force on a Current-Carrying Conductor
    9. 22.8 Torque on a Current Loop: Motors and Meters
    10. 22.9 Magnetic Fields Produced by Currents: Ampere’s Law
    11. 22.10 Magnetic Force between Two Parallel Conductors
    12. 22.11 More Applications of Magnetism
    13. Glossary
    14. Section Summary
    15. Conceptual Questions
    16. Problems & Exercises
    17. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  24. 23 Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits, and Electrical Technologies
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 23.1 Induced Emf and Magnetic Flux
    3. 23.2 Faraday’s Law of Induction: Lenz’s Law
    4. 23.3 Motional Emf
    5. 23.4 Eddy Currents and Magnetic Damping
    6. 23.5 Electric Generators
    7. 23.6 Back Emf
    8. 23.7 Transformers
    9. 23.8 Electrical Safety: Systems and Devices
    10. 23.9 Inductance
    11. 23.10 RL Circuits
    12. 23.11 Reactance, Inductive and Capacitive
    13. 23.12 RLC Series AC Circuits
    14. Glossary
    15. Section Summary
    16. Conceptual Questions
    17. Problems & Exercises
    18. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  25. 24 Electromagnetic Waves
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 24.1 Maxwell’s Equations: Electromagnetic Waves Predicted and Observed
    3. 24.2 Production of Electromagnetic Waves
    4. 24.3 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    5. 24.4 Energy in Electromagnetic Waves
    6. Glossary
    7. Section Summary
    8. Conceptual Questions
    9. Problems & Exercises
    10. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  26. 25 Geometric Optics
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 25.1 The Ray Aspect of Light
    3. 25.2 The Law of Reflection
    4. 25.3 The Law of Refraction
    5. 25.4 Total Internal Reflection
    6. 25.5 Dispersion: The Rainbow and Prisms
    7. 25.6 Image Formation by Lenses
    8. 25.7 Image Formation by Mirrors
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
    13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  27. 26 Vision and Optical Instruments
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 26.1 Physics of the Eye
    3. 26.2 Vision Correction
    4. 26.3 Color and Color Vision
    5. 26.4 Microscopes
    6. 26.5 Telescopes
    7. 26.6 Aberrations
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
    12. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  28. 27 Wave Optics
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 27.1 The Wave Aspect of Light: Interference
    3. 27.2 Huygens's Principle: Diffraction
    4. 27.3 Young’s Double Slit Experiment
    5. 27.4 Multiple Slit Diffraction
    6. 27.5 Single Slit Diffraction
    7. 27.6 Limits of Resolution: The Rayleigh Criterion
    8. 27.7 Thin Film Interference
    9. 27.8 Polarization
    10. 27.9 *Extended Topic* Microscopy Enhanced by the Wave Characteristics of Light
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
    15. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  29. 28 Special Relativity
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 28.1 Einstein’s Postulates
    3. 28.2 Simultaneity And Time Dilation
    4. 28.3 Length Contraction
    5. 28.4 Relativistic Addition of Velocities
    6. 28.5 Relativistic Momentum
    7. 28.6 Relativistic Energy
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
    12. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  30. 29 Introduction to Quantum Physics
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 29.1 Quantization of Energy
    3. 29.2 The Photoelectric Effect
    4. 29.3 Photon Energies and the Electromagnetic Spectrum
    5. 29.4 Photon Momentum
    6. 29.5 The Particle-Wave Duality
    7. 29.6 The Wave Nature of Matter
    8. 29.7 Probability: The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
    9. 29.8 The Particle-Wave Duality Reviewed
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
    14. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  31. 30 Atomic Physics
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 30.1 Discovery of the Atom
    3. 30.2 Discovery of the Parts of the Atom: Electrons and Nuclei
    4. 30.3 Bohr’s Theory of the Hydrogen Atom
    5. 30.4 X Rays: Atomic Origins and Applications
    6. 30.5 Applications of Atomic Excitations and De-Excitations
    7. 30.6 The Wave Nature of Matter Causes Quantization
    8. 30.7 Patterns in Spectra Reveal More Quantization
    9. 30.8 Quantum Numbers and Rules
    10. 30.9 The Pauli Exclusion Principle
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
    15. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  32. 31 Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 31.1 Nuclear Radioactivity
    3. 31.2 Radiation Detection and Detectors
    4. 31.3 Substructure of the Nucleus
    5. 31.4 Nuclear Decay and Conservation Laws
    6. 31.5 Half-Life and Activity
    7. 31.6 Binding Energy
    8. 31.7 Tunneling
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
    13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  33. 32 Medical Applications of Nuclear Physics
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 32.1 Medical Imaging and Diagnostics
    3. 32.2 Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation
    4. 32.3 Therapeutic Uses of Ionizing Radiation
    5. 32.4 Food Irradiation
    6. 32.5 Fusion
    7. 32.6 Fission
    8. 32.7 Nuclear Weapons
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
    13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  34. 33 Particle Physics
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 33.1 The Yukawa Particle and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle Revisited
    3. 33.2 The Four Basic Forces
    4. 33.3 Accelerators Create Matter from Energy
    5. 33.4 Particles, Patterns, and Conservation Laws
    6. 33.5 Quarks: Is That All There Is?
    7. 33.6 GUTs: The Unification of Forces
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
    12. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  35. 34 Frontiers of Physics
    1. Connection for AP® Courses
    2. 34.1 Cosmology and Particle Physics
    3. 34.2 General Relativity and Quantum Gravity
    4. 34.3 Superstrings
    5. 34.4 Dark Matter and Closure
    6. 34.5 Complexity and Chaos
    7. 34.6 High-Temperature Superconductors
    8. 34.7 Some Questions We Know to Ask
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  36. A | Atomic Masses
  37. B | Selected Radioactive Isotopes
  38. C | Useful Information
  39. D | Glossary of Key Symbols and Notation
  40. Answer Key
    1. Chapter 1
    2. Chapter 2
    3. Chapter 3
    4. Chapter 4
    5. Chapter 5
    6. Chapter 6
    7. Chapter 7
    8. Chapter 8
    9. Chapter 9
    10. Chapter 10
    11. Chapter 11
    12. Chapter 12
    13. Chapter 13
    14. Chapter 14
    15. Chapter 15
    16. Chapter 16
    17. Chapter 17
    18. Chapter 18
    19. Chapter 19
    20. Chapter 20
    21. Chapter 21
    22. Chapter 22
    23. Chapter 23
    24. Chapter 24
    25. Chapter 25
    26. Chapter 26
    27. Chapter 27
    28. Chapter 28
    29. Chapter 29
    30. Chapter 30
    31. Chapter 31
    32. Chapter 32
    33. Chapter 33
    34. Chapter 34
  41. Index

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define conservative force, potential energy, and mechanical energy.
  • Explain the potential energy of a spring in terms of its compression when Hooke’s law applies.
  • Use the work-energy theorem to show how having only conservative forces leads to conservation of mechanical energy.

The information presented in this section supports the following AP® learning objectives and science practices:

  • 4.C.1.1 The student is able to calculate the total energy of a system and justify the mathematical routines used in the calculation of component types of energy within the system whose sum is the total energy. (S.P. 1.4, 2.1, 2.2)
  • 4.C.2.1 The student is able to make predictions about the changes in the mechanical energy of a system when a component of an external force acts parallel or antiparallel to the direction of the displacement of the center of mass. (S.P. 6.4)
  • 5.B.1.1 The student is able to set up a representation or model showing that a single object can only have kinetic energy and use information about that object to calculate its kinetic energy. (S.P. 1.4, 2.2)
  • 5.B.1.2 The student is able to translate between a representation of a single object, which can only have kinetic energy, and a system that includes the object, which may have both kinetic and potential energies. (S.P. 1.5)
  • 5.B.3.1 The student is able to describe and make qualitative and/or quantitative predictions about everyday examples of systems with internal potential energy. (S.P. 2.2, 6.4, 7.2)
  • 5.B.3.2 The student is able to make quantitative calculations of the internal potential energy of a system from a description or diagram of that system. (S.P. 1.4, 2.2)
  • 5.B.3.3 The student is able to apply mathematical reasoning to create a description of the internal potential energy of a system from a description or diagram of the objects and interactions in that system. (S.P. 1.4, 2.2)

Potential Energy and Conservative Forces

Work is done by a force, and some forces, such as weight, have special characteristics. A conservative force is one, like the gravitational force, for which work done by or against it depends only on the starting and ending points of a motion and not on the path taken. We can define a potential energy (PE)(PE) size 12{ \( "PE" \) } {} for any conservative force, just as we did for the gravitational force. For example, when you wind up a toy, an egg timer, or an old-fashioned watch, you do work against its spring and store energy in it. (We treat these springs as ideal, in that we assume there is no friction and no production of thermal energy.) This stored energy is recoverable as work, and it is useful to think of it as potential energy contained in the spring. Indeed, the reason that the spring has this characteristic is that its force is conservative. That is, a conservative force results in stored or potential energy. Gravitational potential energy is one example, as is the energy stored in a spring. We will also see how conservative forces are related to the conservation of energy.

Potential Energy and Conservative Forces

Potential energy is the energy a system has due to position, shape, or configuration. It is stored energy that is completely recoverable.

A conservative force is one for which work done by or against it depends only on the starting and ending points of a motion and not on the path taken.

We can define a potential energy (PE)(PE) size 12{ \( "PE" \) } {} for any conservative force. The work done against a conservative force to reach a final configuration depends on the configuration, not the path followed, and is the potential energy added.

Real World Connections: Energy of a Bowling Ball

How much energy does a bowling ball have? (Just think about it for a minute.)

If you are thinking that you need more information, you’re right. If we can measure the ball’s velocity, then determining its kinetic energy is simple. Note that this does require defining a reference frame in which to measure the velocity. Determining the ball’s potential energy also requires more information. You need to know its height above the ground, which requires a reference frame of the ground. Without the ground—in other words, Earth—the ball does not classically have potential energy. Potential energy comes from the interaction between the ball and the ground. Another way of thinking about this is to compare the ball’s potential energy on Earth and on the Moon. A bowling ball a certain height above Earth is going to have more potential energy than the same bowling ball the same height above the surface of the Moon, because Earth has greater mass than the Moon and therefore exerts more gravity on the ball. Thus, potential energy requires a system of at least two objects, or an object with an internal structure of at least two parts.

Potential Energy of a Spring

First, let us obtain an expression for the potential energy stored in a spring (PEsPEs size 12{"PE" rSub { size 8{s} } } {}). We calculate the work done to stretch or compress a spring that obeys Hooke’s law. (Hooke’s law was examined in Elasticity: Stress and Strain, and states that the magnitude of force FF size 12{F} {} on the spring and the resulting deformation ΔLΔL size 12{ΔL} {} are proportional, F=kΔLF=kΔL size 12{F=kΔL} {}.) (See Figure 7.10.) For our spring, we will replace ΔLΔL (the amount of deformation produced by a force FF) by the distance xx that the spring is stretched or compressed along its length. So the force needed to stretch the spring has magnitude F = kxF = kx size 12{ ital "F = kx"} {}, where kk size 12{k} {} is the spring’s force constant. The force increases linearly from 0 at the start to kxkx size 12{ ital "kx"} {} in the fully stretched position. The average force is kx/2kx/2. Thus the work done in stretching or compressing the spring is Ws=Fd=kx2x=12kx2Ws=Fd=kx2x=12kx2 size 12{W rSub { size 8{s} } = ital "Fd"= left ( { { ital "kx"} over {2} } right )""x= { {1} over {2} } ital "kx" rSup { size 8{2} } } {}. Alternatively, we noted in Kinetic Energy and the Work-Energy Theorem that the area under a graph of FF size 12{F} {} vs. xx size 12{x} {} is the work done by the force. In Figure 7.10(c) we see that this area is also 12kx212kx2 size 12{ { {1} over {2} } ital "kx" rSup { size 8{2} } } {}. We therefore define the potential energy of a spring, PEsPEs size 12{"PE" rSub { size 8{s} } } {}, to be

PEs=12kx2,PEs=12kx2, size 12{"PE" rSub { size 8{s} } = { {1} over {2} } ital "kx" rSup { size 8{2} } } {}
7.42

where kk size 12{k} {} is the spring’s force constant and xx size 12{x} {} is the displacement from its undeformed position. The potential energy represents the work done on the spring and the energy stored in it as a result of stretching or compressing it a distance xx size 12{x} {}. The potential energy of the spring PEsPEs size 12{"PE" rSub { size 8{s} } } {} does not depend on the path taken; it depends only on the stretch or squeeze xx size 12{x} {} in the final configuration.

An undeformed spring fixed at one end with no potential energy. (b) A spring fixed at one end and stretched by a distance x by a force F equal to k x. Work done W is equal to one half k x squared. P E s is equal to one half k x squared. (c) A graph of force F versus elongation x in the spring. A straight line inclined to x axis starts from origin. The area under this line forms a right triangle with base of x and height of k x. Area of this triangle is equal to one half k x squared.
Figure 7.10 (a) An undeformed spring has no PEsPEs size 12{"PE" rSub { size 8{s} } } {} stored in it. (b) The force needed to stretch (or compress) the spring a distance xx size 12{x} {} has a magnitude F=kxF=kx size 12{F= ital "kx"} {} , and the work done to stretch (or compress) it is 12kx212kx2 size 12{ { {1} over {2} } ital "kx" rSup { size 8{2} } } {}. Because the force is conservative, this work is stored as potential energy (PEs)(PEs) size 12{ \( "PE" rSub { size 8{s} } \) } {} in the spring, and it can be fully recovered. (c) A graph of FF size 12{F} {} vs. xx size 12{x} {} has a slope of kk size 12{k} {}, and the area under the graph is 12kx212kx2 size 12{ { {1} over {2} } ital "kx" rSup { size 8{2} } } {}. Thus the work done or potential energy stored is 12kx212kx2.

The equation PEs=12kx2PEs=12kx2 size 12{"PE" rSub { size 8{s} } = { {1} over {2} } ital "kx" rSup { size 8{2} } } {} has general validity beyond the special case for which it was derived. Potential energy can be stored in any elastic medium by deforming it. Indeed, the general definition of potential energy is energy due to position, shape, or configuration. For shape or position deformations, stored energy is PEs=12kx2PEs=12kx2 size 12{"PE" rSub { size 8{s} } = { {1} over {2} } ital "kx" rSup { size 8{2} } } {}, where kk size 12{k} {} is the force constant of the particular system and xx size 12{x} {} is its deformation. Another example is seen in Figure 7.11 for a guitar string.

A six-string guitar is placed vertically. The left-most string is plucked in the left direction with a force F shown by an arrow pointing left. The displacement of the string from the mean position is d. The plucked string is labeled P E sub string, to represent the potential energy of the string.
Figure 7.11 Work is done to deform the guitar string, giving it potential energy. When released, the potential energy is converted to kinetic energy and back to potential as the string oscillates back and forth. A very small fraction is dissipated as sound energy, slowly removing energy from the string.

Conservation of Mechanical Energy

Let us now consider what form the work-energy theorem takes when only conservative forces are involved. This will lead us to the conservation of energy principle. The work-energy theorem states that the net work done by all forces acting on a system equals its change in kinetic energy. In equation form, this is

W net = 1 2 mv 2 1 2 mv 0 2 = Δ KE. W net = 1 2 mv 2 1 2 mv 0 2 = Δ KE. size 12{W rSub { size 8{"net"} } = { {1} over {2} } ital "mv" rSup { size 8{2} } - { {1} over {2} } ital "mv" rSub { size 8{0} rSup { size 8{2} } } =Δ"KE" "." } {}
7.43

If only conservative forces act, then

Wnet=Wc,Wnet=Wc, size 12{W rSub { size 8{"net"} } =W rSub { size 8{c} } } {}
7.44

where WcWc is the total work done by all conservative forces. Thus,

Wc=ΔKE.Wc=ΔKE. size 12{W rSub { size 8{c} } =Δ"KE"} {}
7.45

Now, if the conservative force, such as the gravitational force or a spring force, does work, the system loses potential energy. That is, Wc=ΔPEWc=ΔPE size 12{W rSub { size 8{c} } = +- D"PE"} {}. Therefore,

Δ PE = Δ KE Δ PE = Δ KE size 12{ - Δ"PE"=Δ"KE"} {}
7.46

or

ΔKE+ΔPE=0.ΔKE+ΔPE=0. size 12{Δ"KE"+Δ"PE"=0} {}
7.47

This equation means that the total kinetic and potential energy is constant for any process involving only conservative forces. That is,

KE + PE = constant     or KE i + PE i = KE f + PE f } (conservative forces only), KE + PE = constant     or KE i + PE i = KE f + PE f } (conservative forces only),
7.48

where i and f denote initial and final values. This equation is a form of the work-energy theorem for conservative forces; it is known as the conservation of mechanical energy principle. Remember that this applies to the extent that all the forces are conservative, so that friction is negligible. The total kinetic plus potential energy of a system is defined to be its mechanical energy, (KE+PE)(KE+PE) size 12{ \( "KE"+"PE" \) } {}. In a system that experiences only conservative forces, there is a potential energy associated with each force, and the energy only changes form between KEKE size 12{"KE"} {} and the various types of PEPE size 12{"PE"} {}, with the total energy remaining constant.

The internal energy of a system is the sum of the kinetic energies of all of its elements, plus the potential energy due to all of the interactions due to conservative forces between all of the elements.

Real World Connections

Consider a wind-up toy, such as a car. It uses a spring system to store energy. The amount of energy stored depends only on how many times it is wound, not how quickly or slowly the winding happens. Similarly, a dart gun using compressed air stores energy in its internal structure. In this case, the energy stored inside depends only on how many times it is pumped, not how quickly or slowly the pumping is done. The total energy put into the system, whether through winding or pumping, is equal to the total energy conserved in the system (minus any energy loss in the system due to interactions between its parts, such as air leaks in the dart gun). Since the internal energy of the system is conserved, you can calculate the amount of stored energy by measuring the kinetic energy of the system (the moving car or dart) when the potential energy is released.

Example 7.8 Using Conservation of Mechanical Energy to Calculate the Speed of a Toy Car

A 0.100-kg toy car is propelled by a compressed spring, as shown in Figure 7.12. The car follows a track that rises 0.180 m above the starting point. The spring is compressed 4.00 cm and has a force constant of 250.0 N/m. Assuming work done by friction to be negligible, find (a) how fast the car is going before it starts up the slope and (b) how fast it is going at the top of the slope.

The figure shows a toy race car that has just been released from a spring. Two possible paths for the car are shown. One path has a gradual upward incline, leveling off at a height of eighteen centimeters above its starting level. An alternative path shows the car descending from its starting point, making a loop, and then ascending back up and leveling off at a height of eighteen centimeters above its starting level.
Figure 7.12 A toy car is pushed by a compressed spring and coasts up a slope. Assuming negligible friction, the potential energy in the spring is first completely converted to kinetic energy, and then to a combination of kinetic and gravitational potential energy as the car rises. The details of the path are unimportant because all forces are conservative—the car would have the same final speed if it took the alternate path shown.

Strategy

The spring force and the gravitational force are conservative forces, so conservation of mechanical energy can be used. Thus,

KE i + PE i = KE f + PE f KE i + PE i = KE f + PE f size 12{"KE""" lSub { size 8{i} } +"PE" rSub { size 8{i} } ="KE" rSub { size 8{f} } +"PE" rSub { size 8{f} } } {}
7.49

or

12 mvi2 + mgh i +12 kxi2 =12 mvf2+ mgh f + 12 kxf2, 12 mvi2 + mgh i +12 kxi2 =12 mvf2+ mgh f + 12 kxf2,
7.50

where hh size 12{h} {} is the height (vertical position) and xx size 12{x} {} is the compression of the spring. This general statement looks complex but becomes much simpler when we start considering specific situations. First, we must identify the initial and final conditions in a problem; then, we enter them into the last equation to solve for an unknown.

Solution for (a)

This part of the problem is limited to conditions just before the car is released and just after it leaves the spring. Take the initial height to be zero, so that both hihi size 12{h rSub { size 8{i} } } {} and hfhf size 12{h rSub { size 8{f} } } {} are zero. Furthermore, the initial speed vivi size 12{v rSub { size 8{i} } } {} is zero and the final compression of the spring xfxf size 12{x rSub { size 8{f} } } {} is zero, and so several terms in the conservation of mechanical energy equation are zero and it simplifies to

1 2 kx i 2 = 1 2 mv f 2 . 1 2 kx i 2 = 1 2 mv f 2 .
7.51

In other words, the initial potential energy in the spring is converted completely to kinetic energy in the absence of friction. Solving for the final speed and entering known values yields

v f = k m x i = 250 .0 N/m 0.100 kg ( 0.0400 m ) = 2.00 m/s. v f = k m x i = 250 .0 N/m 0.100 kg ( 0.0400 m ) = 2.00 m/s. alignl { stack { size 12{v rSub { size 8{f} } = sqrt { { {k} over {m} } } x rSub { size 8{i} } } {} # " "= sqrt { { {"250" "." 0" N/m"} over {0 "." "100 kg"} } } \( 0 "." "0400"" m" \) {} # " "=2 "." "00"" m/s" "." {} } } {}
7.52

Solution for (b)

One method of finding the speed at the top of the slope is to consider conditions just before the car is released and just after it reaches the top of the slope, completely ignoring everything in between. Doing the same type of analysis to find which terms are zero, the conservation of mechanical energy becomes

12 kxi 2 =1 2 mvf 2 +mghf.12 kxi 2 =1 2 mvf 2 +mghf. size 12{ { {1} over {2} } ital "kx" rSub { size 8{i} rSup { size 8{2} } } = { {1} over {2} } ital "mv" rSub { size 8{f} rSup { size 8{2} } } + ital "mgh" rSub { size 8{f} } } {}
7.53

This form of the equation means that the spring’s initial potential energy is converted partly to gravitational potential energy and partly to kinetic energy. The final speed at the top of the slope will be less than at the bottom. Solving for vfvf size 12{v rSub { size 8{f} } } {} and substituting known values gives

v f = kx i 2 m 2 gh f = 250.0 N/m 0.100 kg ( 0.0400 m ) 2 2 ( 9.80 m/s 2 ) ( 0.180 m ) = 0.687 m/s. v f = kx i 2 m 2 gh f = 250.0 N/m 0.100 kg ( 0.0400 m ) 2 2 ( 9.80 m/s 2 ) ( 0.180 m ) = 0.687 m/s. alignl { stack { size 12{v rSub { size 8{f} } = sqrt { { { ital "kx" rSub { size 8{i} rSup { size 8{2} } } } over {m} } - 2 ital "gh" rSub { size 8{f} } } } {} # " "= sqrt { left ( { {"250" "." 0" N/m"} over {0 "." "100 kg"} } right )"" \( 0 "." "0400"" m" \) rSup { size 8{2} } - 2 \( 9 "." "80"" m/s" rSup { size 8{2} } \) \( 0 "." "180"" m" \) } {} # " "=0 "." "687"" m/s" "." {} } } {}
7.54

Discussion

Another way to solve this problem is to realize that the car’s kinetic energy before it goes up the slope is converted partly to potential energy—that is, to take the final conditions in part (a) to be the initial conditions in part (b).

Applying the Science Practices: Potential Energy in a Spring

Suppose you are running an experiment in which two 250 g carts connected by a spring (with spring constant 120 N/m) are run into a solid block, and the compression of the spring is measured. In one run of this experiment, the spring was measured to compress from its rest length of 5.0 cm to a minimum length of 2.0 cm. What was the potential energy stored in this system?

Answer

Note that the change in length of the spring is 3.0 cm. Hence we can apply Equation 7.42 to find that the potential energy is PE = (1/2)(120 N/m)(0.030 m)2 = 0.0541 J.

Note that, for conservative forces, we do not directly calculate the work they do; rather, we consider their effects through their corresponding potential energies, just as we did in Example 7.8. Note also that we do not consider details of the path taken—only the starting and ending points are important (as long as the path is not impossible). This assumption is usually a tremendous simplification, because the path may be complicated and forces may vary along the way.

PhET Explorations: Energy Skate Park

Learn about conservation of energy with a skater dude! Build tracks, ramps and jumps for the skater and view the kinetic energy, potential energy and friction as he moves. You can also take the skater to different planets or even space!

Figure 7.13 Energy Skate Park
Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/college-physics-ap-courses/pages/1-connection-for-ap-r-courses
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/college-physics-ap-courses/pages/1-connection-for-ap-r-courses
Citation information

© Aug 12, 2015 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.