In
physicsPhysics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...
,
potential energy is the
energyIn physics, energy is an indirectly observed quantity. It is often understood as the ability a physical system has to do work on other physical systems...
stored in a
bodyIn physics, a physical body or physical object is a collection of masses, taken to be one...
or in a
systemIn physics, the word system has a technical meaning, namely, it is the portion of the physical universe chosen for analysis. Everything outside the system is known as the environment, which in analysis is ignored except for its effects on the system. The cut between system and the world is a free...
due to its position in a
force field or due to its configuration. The
SI unitThe International System of Units is the modern form of the metric system and is generally a system of units of measurement devised around seven base units and the convenience of the number ten. The older metric system included several groups of units...
of measure for energy and work is the
JouleThe joule ; symbol J) is a derived unit of energy or work in the International System of Units. It is equal to the energy expended in applying a force of one newton through a distance of one metre , or in passing an electric current of one ampere through a resistance of one ohm for one second...
(symbol J). The term "potential energy" was coined by the 19th century Scottish engineer and physicist William Rankine.
Overview
Potential energy exists when a
forceIn physics, a force is any influence that causes an object to undergo a change in speed, a change in direction, or a change in shape. In other words, a force is that which can cause an object with mass to change its velocity , i.e., to accelerate, or which can cause a flexible object to deform...
acts upon an object that tends to restore it to a lower energy configuration. This force is often called a
restoring forceRestoring force, in a physics context, is a variable force that gives rise to an equilibrium in a physical system. If the system is perturbed away from the equilibrium, the restoring force will tend to bring the system back toward equilibrium....
. For example, when a
springA spring is an elastic object used to store mechanical energy. Springs are usually made out of spring steel. Small springs can be wound from prehardened stock, while larger ones are made from annealed steel and hardened after fabrication...
is stretched to the left, it exerts a force to the right so as to return to its original, unstretched position. Similarly, when a mass is lifted up, the force of gravity will act so as to bring it back down. The action of stretching the spring or lifting the mass requires energy to perform. The energy that went into lifting up the mass is stored in its position in the
gravitational fieldThe gravitational field is a model used in physics to explain the existence of gravity. In its original concept, gravity was a force between point masses...
, while similarly, the energy it took to stretch the spring is stored in the metal. According to the law of
conservation of energyThe nineteenth century law of conservation of energy is a law of physics. It states that the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant over time. The total energy is said to be conserved over time...
, energy cannot be created or destroyed; hence this energy cannot disappear. Instead, it is stored as potential energy. If the spring is released or the mass is dropped, this stored energy will be converted into
kinetic energyThe kinetic energy of an object is the energy which it possesses due to its motion.It is defined as the work needed to accelerate a body of a given mass from rest to its stated velocity. Having gained this energy during its acceleration, the body maintains this kinetic energy unless its speed changes...
by the restoring force, which is
elasticityIn physics, elasticity is the physical property of a material that returns to its original shape after the stress that made it deform or distort is removed. The relative amount of deformation is called the strain....
in the case of the spring, and gravity in the case of the mass. Think of a roller coaster. When the coaster climbs a hill it has potential energy. At the very top of the hill is its maximum potential energy. When the car speeds down the hill potential energy turns into kinetic. Kinetic energy is greatest at the bottom.
The more formal definition is that potential energy is the energy difference between the energy of an object in a given position and its energy at a reference position.
There are various types of potential energy, each associated with a particular type of force. More specifically, every
conservative forceA conservative force is a force with the property that the work done in moving a particle between two points is independent of the path taken. Equivalently, if a particle travels in a closed loop, the net work done by a conservative force is zero.It is possible to define a numerical value of...
gives rise to potential energy. For example, the work of an
elasticIn physics, elasticity is the physical property of a material that returns to its original shape after the stress that made it deform or distort is removed. The relative amount of deformation is called the strain....
force is called elastic potential energy; work of the gravitational force is called gravitational potential energy; work of the Coulomb force is called
electric potential energyElectric potential energy, or electrostatic potential energy, is a potential energy that results from conservative Coulomb forces and is associated with the configuration of a particular set of point charges within a defined system...
; work of the strong nuclear force or weak nuclear force acting on the
baryonA baryon is a composite particle made up of three quarks . Baryons and mesons belong to the hadron family, which are the quarkbased particles...
chargeIn physics, a charge may refer to one of many different quantities, such as the electric charge in electromagnetism or the color charge in quantum chromodynamics. Charges are associated with conserved quantum numbers.Formal definition:...
is called nuclear potential energy; work of intermolecular forces is called intermolecular potential energy. Chemical potential energy, such as the energy stored in fossil fuels, is the work of the Coulomb force during rearrangement of mutual positions of electrons and nuclei in atoms and molecules. Thermal energy usually has two components: the kinetic energy of random motions of particles and the potential energy of their mutual positions.
As a general rule, the work done by a conservative force
F will be
where
is the change in the potential energy associated with that particular force. Common notations for potential energy are
U,
V,
E_{p}, and
PE.
Reference level
The potential energy is a function of the state a system is in, and is defined relative to that for a particular state. This reference state is not always a real state, it may also be a limit, such as with the distances between all bodies tending to infinity, provided that the energy involved in tending to that limit is finite, such as in the case of
inversesquare lawIn physics, an inversesquare law is any physical law stating that a specified physical quantity or strength is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source of that physical quantity....
forces. Any arbitrary reference state could be used, therefore it can be chosen based on convenience.
Typically the potential energy of a system depends on the
relative positions of its components only, so the reference state can also be expressed in terms of relative positions.
Gravitational potential energy
Gravitational energy is the potential energy associated with gravitational force. If an object falls from one point to another point inside a gravitational field, the force of gravity will do positive work on the object, and the gravitational potential energy will decrease by the same amount.
Consider a book placed on top of a table. As the book is raised from the floor, to the table, some external force works against the gravitational force. If the book falls back to the floor, the "falling" energy the book receives is provided by the gravitational force. Thus, if the book falls off the table, this potential energy goes to accelerate the mass of the book and is converted into
kinetic energyThe kinetic energy of an object is the energy which it possesses due to its motion.It is defined as the work needed to accelerate a body of a given mass from rest to its stated velocity. Having gained this energy during its acceleration, the body maintains this kinetic energy unless its speed changes...
. When the book hits the floor this kinetic energy is converted into heat and sound by the impact.
The factors that affect an object's gravitational potential energy are its height relative to some reference point, its mass, and the strength of the gravitational field it is in. Thus, a book lying on a table has less gravitational potential energy than the same book on top of a taller cupboard, and less gravitational potential energy than a heavier book lying on the same table. An object at a certain height above the Moon's surface has less gravitational potential energy than at the same height above the Earth's surface because the Moon's gravity is weaker. Note that "height" in the common sense of the term cannot be used for gravitational potential energy calculations when gravity is not assumed to be a constant. The following sections provide more detail.
Local approximation
The strength of a gravitational field varies with location. However, when the change of distance is small in relation to the distances from the center of the source of the gravitational field, this variation in field strength is negligible and we can assume that the force of gravity on a particular object is constant. Near the surface of the Earth, for example, we assume that the acceleration due to gravity is a constant ("
standard gravityStandard gravity, or standard acceleration due to free fall, usually denoted by g0 or gn, is the nominal acceleration of an object in a vacuum near the surface of the Earth. It is defined as precisely , or about...
"). In this case, a simple expression for gravitational potential energy can be derived using the
W =
Fd equation for
workIn physics, work is a scalar quantity that can be described as the product of a force times the distance through which it acts, and it is called the work of the force. Only the component of a force in the direction of the movement of its point of application does work...
, and the equation
When accounting only for
massMass can be defined as a quantitive measure of the resistance an object has to change in its velocity.In physics, mass commonly refers to any of the following three properties of matter, which have been shown experimentally to be equivalent:...
,
gravityGravitation, or gravity, is a natural phenomenon by which physical bodies attract with a force proportional to their mass. Gravitation is most familiar as the agent that gives weight to objects with mass and causes them to fall to the ground when dropped...
, and
altitudeAltitude or height is defined based on the context in which it is used . As a general definition, altitude is a distance measurement, usually in the vertical or "up" direction, between a reference datum and a point or object. The reference datum also often varies according to the context...
, the equation is:
where
U is the potential energy of the object relative to its being on the Earth's surface,
m is the mass of the object,
g is the acceleration due to gravity, and
h is the altitude of the object. If
m is expressed in
kilogramThe kilogram or kilogramme , also known as the kilo, is the base unit of mass in the International System of Units and is defined as being equal to the mass of the International Prototype Kilogram , which is almost exactly equal to the mass of one liter of water...
s,
g in
meters per second squaredThe metre per second squared is the unit of acceleration in the International System of Units . As a derived unit it is composed from the SI base units of length, the metre, and the standard unit of time, the second...
and
h in meters then
U will be calculated in
jouleThe joule ; symbol J) is a derived unit of energy or work in the International System of Units. It is equal to the energy expended in applying a force of one newton through a distance of one metre , or in passing an electric current of one ampere through a resistance of one ohm for one second...
s.
Hence, the potential difference is
General formula
However, over large variations in distance, the approximation that
g is constant is no longer valid, and we have to use
calculusCalculus is a branch of mathematics focused on limits, functions, derivatives, integrals, and infinite series. This subject constitutes a major part of modern mathematics education. It has two major branches, differential calculus and integral calculus, which are related by the fundamental theorem...
and the general mathematical definition of work to determine gravitational potential energy. For the computation of the potential energy we can
integrateIntegration is an important concept in mathematics and, together with its inverse, differentiation, is one of the two main operations in calculus...
the gravitational force, whose magnitude is given by Newton's law of gravitation, with respect to the distance
r between the two bodies. Using that definition, the gravitational potential energy of a system of masses
m_{1} and
M_{2} at a distance
r using
gravitational constantThe gravitational constant, denoted G, is an empirical physical constant involved in the calculation of the gravitational attraction between objects with mass. It appears in Newton's law of universal gravitation and in Einstein's theory of general relativity. It is also known as the universal...
G is
,
where
K is the constant of integration. Choosing the convention that
K=0 makes calculations simpler, albeit at the cost of making
U negative; for why this is physically reasonable, see below.
Given this formula for
U, the total potential energy of a system of
n bodies is found by summing, for all
pairs of two bodies, the potential energy of the system of those two bodies.
Considering the system of bodies as the combined set of small particles the bodies consist of, and applying the previous on the particle level we get the negative
gravitational binding energyThe gravitational binding energy of an object consisting of loose material, held together by gravity alone, is the amount of energy required to pull all of the material apart, to infinity...
. This potential energy is more strongly negative than the total potential energy of the system of bodies as such since it also includes the negative gravitational binding energy of each body. The potential energy of the system of bodies as such is the negative of the energy needed to separate the bodies from each other to infinity, while the gravitational binding energy is the energy needed to separate all particles from each other to infinity.
therefore,
,
Why choose a convention where gravitational energy is negative?
As with all potential energies, only differences in gravitational potential energy matter for most physical purposes, and the choice of zero point is arbitrary. Given that there is no reasonable criterion for preferring one particular finite
r over another, there seem to be only two reasonable choices for the distance at which
U becomes zero:
and
. The choice of
at infinity may seem peculiar, and the consequence that gravitational energy is always negative may seem counterintuitive, but this choice allows gravitational potential energy values to be finite, albeit negative.
The
singularityIn mathematics, a singularity is in general a point at which a given mathematical object is not defined, or a point of an exceptional set where it fails to be wellbehaved in some particular way, such as differentiability...
at
in the formula for gravitational potential energy means that the only other apparently reasonable alternative choice of convention, with
for
, would result in potential energy being positive, but infinitely large for all nonzero values of
r, and would make calculations involving sums or differences of potential energies beyond what is possible with the
real numberIn mathematics, a real number is a value that represents a quantity along a continuum, such as 5 , 4/3 , 8.6 , √2 and π...
system. Since physicists abhor infinities in their calculations, and
r is always nonzero in practice, the choice of
at infinity is by far the more preferable choice, even if the idea of negative energy appears to be peculiar at first.
The negative value for gravitational energy also has deeper implications that make it seem more reasonable in cosmological calculations where the total energy of the universe can meaningfully be considered; see inflation theory for more on this.
Uses
Gravitational potential energy has a number of practical uses, notably the generation of
hydroelectricityHydroelectricity is the term referring to electricity generated by hydropower; the production of electrical power through the use of the gravitational force of falling or flowing water. It is the most widely used form of renewable energy...
. For example in
DinorwigThe Dinorwig Power Station is a pumpedstorage hydroelectric scheme, near Dinorwig, Llanberis in Snowdonia national park in Gwynedd, north Wales...
, Wales, there are two lakes, one at a higher elevation than the other. At times when surplus electricity is not required (and so is comparatively cheap), water is pumped up to the higher lake, thus converting the electrical energy (running the pump) to gravitational potential energy. At times of peak demand for electricity, the water flows back down through electrical generator turbines, converting the potential energy into kinetic energy and then back into electricity. (The process is not completely efficient and much of the original energy from the surplus electricity is in fact lost to friction.) See also pumped storage.
Gravitational potential energy is also used to power clocks in which falling weights operate the mechanism.
Elastic potential energy
Elastic potential energy is the potential energy of an
elasticIn physics, elasticity is the physical property of a material that returns to its original shape after the stress that made it deform or distort is removed. The relative amount of deformation is called the strain....
object (for example a
bowThe bow and arrow is a projectile weapon system that predates recorded history and is common to most cultures.Description:A bow is a flexible arc that shoots aerodynamic projectiles by means of elastic energy. Essentially, the bow is a form of spring powered by a string or cord...
or a catapult) that is deformed under tension or compression (or
stressedIn continuum mechanics, stress is a measure of the internal forces acting within a deformable body. Quantitatively, it is a measure of the average force per unit area of a surface within the body on which internal forces act. These internal forces are a reaction to external forces applied on the body...
in formal terminology). It arises as a consequence of a force that tries to restore the object to its original shape, which is most often the electromagnetic force between the atoms and molecules that constitute the object. If the stretch is released, the energy is transformed into
kinetic energyThe kinetic energy of an object is the energy which it possesses due to its motion.It is defined as the work needed to accelerate a body of a given mass from rest to its stated velocity. Having gained this energy during its acceleration, the body maintains this kinetic energy unless its speed changes...
.
Calculation of elastic potential energy
The elastic potential energy stored in a stretched spring can be calculated by finding the work necessary to stretch the spring a distance x from its unstretched length:
an ideal spring will follow
Hooke's LawIn mechanics, and physics, Hooke's law of elasticity is an approximation that states that the extension of a spring is in direct proportion with the load applied to it. Many materials obey this law as long as the load does not exceed the material's elastic limit. Materials for which Hooke's law...
:
The work done (and therefore the stored potential energy) will then be:
The units are in Joules.
The equation is often used in calculations of positions of
mechanical equilibriumA standard definition of static equilibrium is:This is a strict definition, and often the term "static equilibrium" is used in a more relaxed manner interchangeably with "mechanical equilibrium", as defined next....
.
More involved calculations can be found at elastic potential energy.
Chemical potential energy
Chemical potential energy is a form of potential energy related to the structural arrangement of atoms or molecules. This arrangement may be the result of
chemical bondA chemical bond is an attraction between atoms that allows the formation of chemical substances that contain two or more atoms. The bond is caused by the electromagnetic force attraction between opposite charges, either between electrons and nuclei, or as the result of a dipole attraction...
s within a molecule or otherwise. Chemical energy of a chemical substance can be transformed to other forms of energy by a
chemical reactionA chemical reaction is a process that leads to the transformation of one set of chemical substances to another. Chemical reactions can be either spontaneous, requiring no input of energy, or nonspontaneous, typically following the input of some type of energy, such as heat, light or electricity...
. As an example, when a fuel is burned the chemical energy is converted to heat, same is the case with digestion of food metabolized in a biological organism. Green plants transform solar energy to chemical energy through the process known as
photosynthesisPhotosynthesis is a chemical process that converts carbon dioxide into organic compounds, especially sugars, using the energy from sunlight. Photosynthesis occurs in plants, algae, and many species of bacteria, but not in archaea. Photosynthetic organisms are called photoautotrophs, since they can...
, and electrical energy can be converted to chemical energy through electrochemical reactions.
The similar term
chemical potentialChemical potential, symbolized by μ, is a measure first described by the American engineer, chemist and mathematical physicist Josiah Willard Gibbs. It is the potential that a substance has to produce in order to alter a system...
is used to indicate the potential of a substance to undergo a change of configuration, be it in the form of a chemical reaction, spatial transport, particle exchange with a reservoir, etc.
Electric potential energy
An object can have potential energy by virtue of its
electric chargeElectric charge is a physical property of matter that causes it to experience a force when near other electrically charged matter. Electric charge comes in two types, called positive and negative. Two positively charged substances, or objects, experience a mutual repulsive force, as do two...
and several forces related to their presence. There are two main types of this kind of potential energy: electrostatic potential energy, electrodynamic potential energy (also sometimes called magnetic potential energy).
Electrostatic potential energy
In case the electric charge of an object can be assumed to be at rest, it has potential energy due to its position relative to other charged objects.
The
electrostatic potential energyElectric potential energy, or electrostatic potential energy, is a potential energy that results from conservative Coulomb forces and is associated with the configuration of a particular set of point charges within a defined system...
is the energy of an electrically charged particle (at rest) in an electric field. It is defined as the work that must be done to move it from an infinite distance away to its present location, in the absence of any nonelectrical forces on the object. This energy is nonzero if there is another electrically charged object nearby.
The simplest example is the case of two pointlike objects A
_{1} and A
_{2} with electrical charges
q_{1} and
q_{2}. The work
W required to move A
_{1} from an infinite distance to a distance
r away from A
_{2} is given by:
where
ε_{0} is the
electric constantThe physical constant ε0, commonly called the vacuum permittivity, permittivity of free space or electric constant is an ideal, physical constant, which is the value of the absolute dielectric permittivity of classical vacuum...
.
This equation is obtained by integrating the Coulomb force between the limits of infinity and
r.
A related quantity called
electric potentialIn classical electromagnetism, the electric potential at a point within a defined space is equal to the electric potential energy at that location divided by the charge there...
(commonly denoted with a
V for voltage) is equal to the electric potential energy per unit charge.
Magnetic potential energy
The energy of a
magnetic momentThe magnetic moment of a magnet is a quantity that determines the force that the magnet can exert on electric currents and the torque that a magnetic field will exert on it...
in an externallyproduced
magnetic BfieldA magnetic field is a mathematical description of the magnetic influence of electric currents and magnetic materials. The magnetic field at any given point is specified by both a direction and a magnitude ; as such it is a vector field.Technically, a magnetic field is a pseudo vector;...
has potential energy

The magnetic potential energy of a
magnetizationIn classical electromagnetism, magnetization or magnetic polarization is the vector field that expresses the density of permanent or induced magnetic dipole moments in a magnetic material...
in a field is
where the integral can be over all space or just the part where is nonzero.
Nuclear potential energy
Nuclear potential energy is the potential energy of the particles inside an
atomic nucleusThe nucleus is the very dense region consisting of protons and neutrons at the center of an atom. It was discovered in 1911, as a result of Ernest Rutherford's interpretation of the famous 1909 Rutherford experiment performed by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, under the direction of Rutherford. The...
. The nuclear particles are bound together by the strong nuclear force. Weak nuclear forces provide the potential energy for certain kinds of radioactive decay, such as
beta decayIn nuclear physics, beta decay is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle is emitted from an atom. There are two types of beta decay: beta minus and beta plus. In the case of beta decay that produces an electron emission, it is referred to as beta minus , while in the case of a...
.
Nuclear particles like protons and neutrons are not destroyed in fission and fusion processes, but collections of them have less mass than if they were individually free, and this mass difference is liberated as heat and radiation in nuclear reactions (the heat and radiation have the missing mass, but it often escapes from the system, where it is not measured). The energy from the
SunThe Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields...
is an example of this form of energy conversion. In the Sun, the process of hydrogen fusion converts about 4 million tonnes of solar matter per second into electromagnetic energy, which is radiated into space.
Relation between potential energy, potential and force
Potential energy is closely linked with forces. If the work done moving along a path which starts and ends in the same location is zero, then the force is said to be
conservativeA conservative force is a force with the property that the work done in moving a particle between two points is independent of the path taken. Equivalently, if a particle travels in a closed loop, the net work done by a conservative force is zero.It is possible to define a numerical value of...
and it is possible to define a numerical value of
potentialA scalar potential is a fundamental concept in vector analysis and physics . The scalar potential is an example of a scalar field...
associated with every point in space. A force field can be reobtained by taking the negative of the
vector gradientIn vector calculus, the gradient of a scalar field is a vector field that points in the direction of the greatest rate of increase of the scalar field, and whose magnitude is the greatest rate of change....
of the potential field.
For example, gravity is a
conservative forceA conservative force is a force with the property that the work done in moving a particle between two points is independent of the path taken. Equivalently, if a particle travels in a closed loop, the net work done by a conservative force is zero.It is possible to define a numerical value of...
. The associated potential is the
gravitational potential, often denoted by
or
, corresponding to the energy per unit mass as a function of position. The gravitational potential energy of two particles of mass
M and
m separated by a distance
r is
The gravitational potential (
specific energyIn the gravitational twobody problem, the specific orbital energy \epsilon\,\! of two orbiting bodies is the constant sum of their mutual potential energy and their total kinetic energy , divided by the reduced mass...
) of the two bodies is
where
is the
reduced massReduced mass is the "effective" inertial mass appearing in the twobody problem of Newtonian mechanics. This is a quantity with the unit of mass, which allows the twobody problem to be solved as if it were a onebody problem. Note however that the mass determining the gravitational force is not...
.
The work done against gravity by moving an
infinitesimal massIn physical theories, a test particle is an idealized model of an object whose physical properties are assumed to be negligible except for the property being studied, which is considered to be insufficient to alter the behavior of the rest of the system...
from point A with
to point B with
is
and the work done going back the other way is
so that the total work done in moving from A to B and returning to A is

If the potential is redefined at A to be
and the potential at B to be
, where
is a constant (i.e.
can be any number, positive or negative, but it must be the same at A as it is at B) then the work done going from A to B is

as before.
In practical terms, this means that one can set the zero of
and
anywhere one likes. One may set it to be zero at the surface of the
EarthEarth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifthlargest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...
, or may find it more convenient to set zero at infinity (as in the expressions given earlier in this section).
A thing to note about conservative forces is that the work done going from A to B does not depend on the route taken. If it did then it would be pointless to define a potential at each point in space. An example of a nonconservative force is friction. With friction, the route taken does affect the amount of work done, and it makes little sense to define a potential associated with friction.
All the examples above are actually force field stored energy (sometimes in disguise). For example in elastic potential energy, stretching an elastic material forces the atoms very slightly further apart. The equilibrium between electromagnetic forces and Pauli repulsion of electrons (they are fermions obeying Fermi statistics) is slightly violated resulting in a small returning force. Scientists rarely discuss forces on an
atomThe atom is a basic unit of matter that consists of a dense central nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. The atomic nucleus contains a mix of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons...
ic scale. Often interactions are described in terms of energy rather than force. One may think of potential energy as being derived from force or think of force as being derived from potential energy (though the latter approach requires a definition of energy that is independent from force which does not currently exist).
A conservative force can be expressed in the language of differential geometry as a closed form. As Euclidean space is
contractibleIn mathematics, a topological space X is contractible if the identity map on X is nullhomotopic, i.e. if it is homotopic to some constant map. Intuitively, a contractible space is one that can be continuously shrunk to a point....
, its
de Rham cohomologyIn mathematics, de Rham cohomology is a tool belonging both to algebraic topology and to differential topology, capable of expressing basic topological information about smooth manifolds in a form particularly adapted to computation and the concrete representation of cohomology classes...
vanishes, so every closed form is also an exact form, and can be expressed as the gradient of a scalar field. This gives a mathematical justification of the fact that all conservative forces are gradients of a potential field.
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