Examples of Kinetic and Potential Energy for High School Physics

You initially learn about kinetic and potential energy in your high school physics class. Knowing the differences between the two types of energy is a fundamental part of understanding the science behind physics. Luckily, you can see many examples of kinetic and potential energy in everyday life to help you understand how these forces of energy affect the world.

  1. Energy Basics

    • Energy is a measurement of the amount of work that can be done by a certain force, subject to the laws of physics. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be converted between different types of energy. Kinetic energy is the energy that is used during movement, or the amount of work needed to accelerate an object to a defined velocity. The greater the mass and velocity of the moving object, the greater the kinetic energy. Potential energy is the energy stored in an object at rest. This potential energy can be converted to kinetic energy to accelerate an object into motion.

    Examples of Kinetic Energy

    • One common example of kinetic energy involves a roller coaster that is speeding down the tracks during a drop. When the roller coaster is at the top of a drop and not moving, there is no kinetic energy being used, but as the roller coaster plunges down a hill, kinetic energy increases as the speed of the coaster increases.

      Kinetic energy can also be observed in sports. In baseball, as the pitcher holds the ball before a pitch, there is no kinetic energy because the ball is not in motion. Once the pitcher is ready, however, kinetic energy is used to throw the ball from the pitcher's mound to the catcher's glove.

      In billiards, a player gives the cue ball kinetic energy when he strikes the ball with the cue. As the ball rolls, it exerts kinetic energy. When the ball comes into contact with another ball, it transmits its kinetic energy, allowing the next ball to be accelerated.

    Examples of Potential Energy

    • Using the roller coaster example, the roller coaster has the greatest potential energy when it is stopped at the top of a big drop. It has the potential to roll down the hill, but it has not yet begun moving. The roller coaster also demonstrates potential energy when it is stopped, allowing individuals to enter or exit the ride.

      An unopened can of carbonated soda also demonstrates potential energy. The can is pressurized with gas that is not in motion but that has a great deal of potential energy. Once the can is opened, the gas is released and the potential energy is converted to kinetic energy.

      When analyzing the physics behind a dam, you can also see potential energy at work. A large amount of potential energy is stored in the water that is held by a dam. This water has the potential to flood the area, converting the potential energy to kinetic energy, if the structure of the dam is compromised. As long as the dam does not break, however, the potential energy will be contained in the water and in the concrete holding the dam together.

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  • Photo Credit Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images

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