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Energy: The Most Fundamental Part Of Life

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Science & Tech

Published on October 29th, 2009 | by Yellow Magpie


Energy: The Most Fundamental Part Of Life

Electric Transmission Lines Photo By Rjcastillo Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Energy is invisible and intangible. You cannot see it, you cannot touch it, you cannot grasp it. Yet, it is everywhere. It surrounds us, it is part of us, and it is us.

From the scorching Sun, to the rotation of the Earth, from the movement of water to nuclear reactors, energy comes in many different forms. Even voices bellowing out sounds to people far away is another form of the Universe’s most fundamental building block.

Some of the most common aspects of the communication age are radio, television and now the Internet. All of these are examples of wave energy or electromagnetic wave energy.

Just a tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum which includes microwaves, radio waves, ultraviolet and infra-red consists of visible light, what is visible to the human eye. All of these are just some examples of energy.

Transmission Powerline Photo By Yummifruitbat Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Transmission Powerline Photo By Yummifruitbat Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Definition Of Energy

Any type of energy can be transformed into another form. Energy is defined as the capacity of a physical system to perform work. It can be found in many different forms such as light, heat, mechanical, chemical, electrical, and kinetic. Everything we can hear, smell, touch, taste, and see is a form of energy.

Hermann Helmholtz

Hermann Helmholtz, a mathematician and medical researcher, developed the law of conservation of energy. This law states that energy can neither be created or destroyed. Instead energy simply changes from one form to another.

Kinetic Energy

According to the Collins English Dictionary, kinetic energy is defined as ‘The energy of motion of a body equal to the work it would do if it were brought to rest.’

Anything that is said to be moving is classified as kinetic energy. The faster an object moves, the greater its mass and the more kinetic energy it contains. A spaceshuttle hurtling into orbit has more kinetic energy than a moving car by virtue of its greater mass and faster relative speed.

Space Shuttle Discovery Launch

Space Shuttle Discovery Launch

Potential Energy

Potential Energy is stored energy. All plants and animals have potential energy stored inside them.

For example, a mountain climber atop a high cliff has much more potential energy than an observer watching the climber from below on the ground. This is because the climber has used energy to climb up the cliff face. Therefore, because of height and gravity, if the climber were to fall a lot of kinetic energy would be released in the process.

Energy And Motion

As we have already said above every moving object has, or more importantly is, kinetic energy.

Nevertheless, in order for something to move it must have adequate energy already to power its movement. The more mass an object has, the more energy required to move it. This gives rise to the saying: ‘The bigger they are; the harder they fall!

Resistance to movement or motion is called inertia.

The reverse of inertia is momentum, that is the way that an already moving object resists being stopped.

Gyroscopes: Head-spinners!

Gyroscopes display momentum in a peculiar manner. The faster they spin, the harder they are to tilt. The same principle applies to motorbikes. The faster the wheels spin, the more the bike can lean to one side. The ‘Wall of Death’ is an example of a type of gyroscope.

Steam Engine

One of the most common forms of generating power in the 19th century was the steam engine. It relies on one of the properties of water. As water turns into steam it rapidly expands.

It is this property which allows steam propulsion. In a steam engine the expansion pushes a piston which turns a shaft, propelling a cog wheel or generator. This causes a jerky motion that creates a lot of stress so as a result, a flywheel was added to reduce strain.

The Humble Flywheel

Flywheels consist of a heavy, large spinning wheel. Because of the mass of the wheel it takes a lot of effort to break through its inertia. This means that although it takes a lot of effort to get the wheel spinning, it will continue to spin unaided for quite a while.

Typically, flywheels are used to smooth petrol engines. An electro-flywheel works as an electric motor, generating electricity.

In electric circuits, capacitors perform the exact same function as mechanical flywheels storing electricity for when it is needed.

Energy And Natural Phenomena

Every day on Earth we are given to thousands of natural displays of energy from flashes of lightning to earthquakes to volcanic eruptions. All of these are natural occurring phenomena that is energy being converted from one form into another. Flashes of lightning are energy systems changing from the form of electrical power into heat energy.

Lightning Strike Hitting A Tree


Solar Power

All life on Earth is powered by the Sun. Solar power consists of heat and light that travels from the Sun to the Earth.

This type of energy is called nuclear fusion and occurs when high energy atoms fuse together at massive temperatures. This process is completely different from the one used in today’s nuclear power stations. Currently all nuclear power is derived from a process called nuclear fission in which atoms are split apart not fused together. Nuclear fusion is much more powerful than fission and provides a great deal more energy.

Solar panels capture the Sun’s heat and transfer it into either electricity or store it in chemical form in batteries.

Check out Yellow Magpie’s article if you would like to read more about Nuclear Fusion: The Solution To Our Crisis and why the Moon may be mined.

Converting Energy

As we have discussed earlier, energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be converted from one form into another. When an object either stops or starts to move, energy changes from potential, or stored energy, to kinetic energy or vice-versa.

Similarly, wood and coal is potential energy that is released when they are burned. These are stored forms of solar energy which has been trapped by plants and converted into chemical energy upon combustion.

People convert energy by eating food. Once inside the body, food undergoes a series of chemical changes and provides us with the valuable energy that we need to stay alive and be healthy.

Human Activity

Every human activity involves a complex cycle of events in which energy changes form many times.

Take for instance running. For people to be able to run we need to convert food into something that can power our bodies. The food comes from either plants or animals. In the case of meat, herbivore animals’ food comes from plants, which in turn get their energy from the sun.

Food is stored as potential energy in our body’s’ muscles in the form of chemicals. The chemical energy in turn is converted into kinetic energy or movement as we start to run.

The power used to run is then dissipated into different forms of energy such as heat or recycled by the rebounding effect of our legs springing back as they hit the ground. Kangaroos are incredibly efficient at this and recycle up to 70 per cent of the energy they use hopping.

Athletes Running During 100 metres Race Photo By William Warby

Athletes Running During 100 metres Race Photo By William Warby

How Power Stations Work

Typical power stations produce energy by ultimately changing the form from chemical to electrical. They do this by burning fuel which is converted into heat. In turn this heat converts the fuel into gas that rapidly expands. It is this rapid expansion that drives the turbines.

However, the hot gas is also used to convert water into steam driving another turbine generator through yet more gaseous expansion. The electricity which these generators produce, powers the electrical grid.

Power Station Diagram Photo By Tennessee Valley Authority

Power Station Diagram Photo By Tennessee Valley Authority

Further Reading

Energy: Its Use and The Environment is a good book that gives a comprehensive account of the different types and uses of energy as well as including the importance of finding alternative sources for future use.

For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom you can access Energy: Its Use and The Environment here.

For those living in Canada you can obtain Energy: Its Use and The Environment from here.

For Germany: Energy: Its Use and The Environment.

For France: Energy: Its Use and The Environment.

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