Guide Chemistry, Energy and the Environment

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To appreciate the way energy flows into and out of biological systems, it is important to understand two of the physical laws that govern energy. Energy exists in many different forms. The transfers and transformations of energy take place around us all the time.

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All energy transfers and transformations are never completely efficient. In most cases, this form is heat energy.

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An important concept in physical systems is that of order and disorder. Molecules and chemical reactions have varying entropy as well. When an object is in motion, there is energy associated with that object.

Think of a wrecking ball. Now what if that same motionless wrecking ball is lifted two stories above ground with a crane?

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If the suspended wrecking ball is not moving, is there energy associated with it? The answer is yes. The energy that was required to lift the wrecking ball did not disappear, but is now stored in the wrecking ball by virtue of its position and the force of gravity acting on it. This type of energy is called potential energy Figure 3 below.

If the ball were to fall, the potential energy would be transformed into kinetic energy until all of the potential energy was exhausted when the ball rested on the ground. Wrecking balls also swing like a pendulum; through the swing, there is a constant change of potential energy highest at the top of the swing to kinetic energy highest at the bottom of the swing. Other examples of potential energy include the energy of water held behind a dam or a person about to skydive out of an airplane. Potential energy is not only associated with the location of matter, but also with the structure of matter.

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Fisher, Editor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4. Skip to content Increase Font Size. Figure 1. Energy exists in different forms: electrical energy, light energy, mechanical energy, and heat energy are all different types of energy. To appreciate the way energy flows into and out of biological systems, it is important to understand two of the physical laws that govern energy.

Energy exists in many different forms. The transfers and transformations of energy take place around us all the time. All energy transfers and transformations are never completely efficient.

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In most cases, this form is heat energy. An important concept in physical systems is that of order and disorder. Molecules and chemical reactions have varying entropy as well. When an object is in motion, there is energy associated with that object.

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Think of a wrecking ball. Now what if that same motionless wrecking ball is lifted two stories above ground with a crane?


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If the suspended wrecking ball is not moving, is there energy associated with it? The answer is yes. The energy that was required to lift the wrecking ball did not disappear, but is now stored in the wrecking ball by virtue of its position and the force of gravity acting on it. This type of energy is called potential energy Figure 3 below. If the ball were to fall, the potential energy would be transformed into kinetic energy until all of the potential energy was exhausted when the ball rested on the ground. Wrecking balls also swing like a pendulum; through the swing, there is a constant change of potential energy highest at the top of the swing to kinetic energy highest at the bottom of the swing.

Other examples of potential energy include the energy of water held behind a dam or a person about to skydive out of an airplane. Potential energy is not only associated with the location of matter, but also with the structure of matter. Environmental Biology by Matthew R. Fisher, Editor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.

Skip to content Increase Font Size.