Last time we calculated the potential energy hidden within a coffee mug resting on a shelf. The concept of a passive object possessing energy may not be something all readers can identify with, but the secret behind that mug’s latent energy lies within The Law of Conservation of Energy, the topic we’ll be discussing today.
Julius Robert von Mayer, a German physicist of the mid 19th Century, is the man behind the Law. He posited that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be transferred from one object to another or converted from one form of energy to another. Forms of energy include potential, kinetic, heat, chemical, mechanical, and electrical, all of which have the ability to become another form of energy.
Let’s take our coffee mug for example. Where did its potential energy come from? Ultimately, from the radiant energy emitted by the sun. The sun’s radiant energy was absorbed by plants and then converted to chemical energy through the process of photosynthesis, enabling them to grow. When they were later eaten by humans and other animals, the plants’ chemical energy became incorporated into their bodies’ cells, including the arm muscles used to lift the mug to the shelf.
In the act of lifting the cup, the arm’s muscle cells converted their own chemical energy into mechanical energy. And because lifting a mug to a shelf is work, for some of us greater than others, some of the arm’s chemical energy became heat energy which was lost to the environment.
Because of the elevated perch provided to the mug by the arm, which was in direct defiance of Earth’s gravitational pull, the arm muscles’ mechanical energy was transferred to the mug and converted to latent potential energy, because without that shelf to support it, the mug would fall to the ground. The mug’s potential energy would realize its full potential if it should be sent crashing to the floor, at which time it would become another form of energy. The mischievous orange kitty seems to have just that in mind.
We’ll talk more about the mug’s potential energy being converted to other forms next time.
Copyright 2015 – Philip J. O’Keefe, PE