Energy Transformations and Conservation

*Source: Motion, Forces, and Energy by Prentice Hall Publishers, Science Explorer

Most forms of energy can be transformed into other forms. A change from one form of energy to another is called an energy transformation. Some energy changes involve single transformations, while others involve many transformations.

Single Transformations

Sometimes, one form of energy needs to be transformed into another to get work done. You are already familiar with many such energy transformations. For example, a toaster transforms electrical energy to thermal energy to toast your bread. A cell phone transforms electrical energy to electromagnetic energy that travels to other phones.

Your body transforms the chemical energy in your food to mechanical energy you need to move your muscles. Chemical energy in food is also transformed to the thermal energy your body uses to maintain its temperature.

Click here for a visual of single energy transformations.

Multiple Transformations

Often, a series of energy transformations is needed to do work. For example, the mechanical energy used to strike a match is transformed first to thermal energy. The thermal energy causes the particles in the match to release stored chemical energy, which is transformed to thermal energy and the electromagnetic energy you see as light.

In a car engine, another series of energy conversions occurs. Electrical energy produces a spark. The thermal energy of the spark releases chemical energy in the fuel. The fuel’s chemical energy in turn becomes thermal energy. Thermal energy is converted to mechanical energy used to move the car, and to electrical energy to produce more sparks.

Transformations Between Potential and Kinetic Energy

One of the most common energy transformations is the transformation between potential energy and kinetic energy. In waterfalls such as Niagara Falls, potential energy is transformed to kinetic energy. The water at the top of the falls has gravitational potential energy. As the water plunges, its velocity increases. Its potential energy becomes kinetic energy.

The law of conservation of energy states that when one form of energy is transformed to another, no energy is destroyed in the process. According to the law of conservation of energy, energy cannot be created or destroyed. So the total amount of energy is the same before and after any transformation. If you add up all the new forms of energy after a transformation, all of the original energy will be accounted for.

Whenever a moving object experiences friction, some of its kinetic energy is transformed into thermal energy.


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