College Physics for AP® Courses

# 7.4Conservative Forces and Potential Energy

College Physics for AP® Courses7.4 Conservative Forces and Potential Energy

### 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.

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.

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,

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.

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

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?

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
Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.