Potential energy


The energy potential that characterizes certain forces is described by their potential energy . This notion of potential can be associated with a field that represents properties of space or / and a long-distance action . A particle, placed at a point in space, will be charged with potential energy, proper to the potential of the place and a movement will result from this. Thus, these forces are considered to have their origin in potential energy.

  • Unit:  Joules
  • Symbol: “J”
  • Formula:  Ep = mgh

What is potential energy?

Potential energy is understood as the capacity of a body to carry out work depending on the configuration it has within the system of bodies that exert forces between them . In other words, it is one capable of generating work as a consequence of the position of the body. Thus, when a body moves in relation to a certain reference level, it is in the measure of accumulating energy.

  • features
  • History
  • Formula and units
  • Elastic potential energy
  • Gravitational potential energy
  • Chemical potential energy
  • Nuclear potential energy
  • Electrostatic potential energy
  • Examples


  • It requires a field of forces within it.
  • This form of energy has the potential to change the state of other objects around it , for example their configuration or their movement.
  • An object placed at a certain height has a higher potential energy than an object placed on the ground.
  • Various forms of energy can be defined within the notion of potential energy. Each of these forms is associated with a type of force that acts in conjunction with physical properties of matter, for example, its mass, its charge, its elasticity, among others.


The term “energy” comes from the Greek word  enérgeia used by Aristoteles, who described potentiality ( dunamis ) as the stored capacity that an object has to do something or be something .


Although the term energy as we know it today first emerged in the 19th century, ideas around the concept began to form in the late 17th century.

In 1686 , Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz , although he did not use the word energy properly, had already developed concepts that correspond to what we understand today by kinetic and potential energy .

In 1842 , Julius Robert Mayer , a German physician, established a correlation between heat and mechanical work , two forms of energy. Thus, Mayer is the first to propose a Law of Conservation of Energy. The following year, James Prescott Joule, an English brewer, measured the increase in temperature produced by the mechanical agitation of water and deduced an equivalence between mechanical work and heat. Later, in 1847 , Herman Ludwig von Helmholtz produced a seminal article entitled “On the Conservation of Energy”. It should be noted that the experimental bases for this significant progress in clarifying the concept of energy are carried out by amateurs. Mayer is a doctor and Joule is a brewer, they are not physicists.

Years later, in the 19th century, the concept of potential energy is introduced by the Scottish engineer William Rankine , although as mentioned above, the Greek philosopher Aristotle had already dealt with the notion of potentiality in his time.

Formula and units

The displacement that a falling object is capable of making will be determined based on the height at which it is located. Thus, the general formula is Ep = mgh , where Ep refers to potential energy, m refers to mass, g equals gravity and h equals height.

On the other hand, the potential energy is calculated in joules (J) , the mass m in kilograms (kg), the acceleration of gravity (g), in meters per second (m / s 2 ) and finally, the height (h ) is measured in meters (m).

Elastic potential energy

It occurs when the internal energy accumulated in a deformable solid increases due to the work exerted by the forces causing the deformation.

Gravitational potential energy

It is the one that bodies have in height . This energy will then depend on two clearly delimited factors: gravity (the attraction that the Earth exerts on its bodies, and their mass. Thus, when we want to establish the gravitational potential energy of a particular body, we must carry out this task with the help of the formula mxgxh, where m is the mass, g is the constant of the force of gravity and h is the height.

Chemical potential energy

It is one that is transformed into kinetic energy from a process of internal combustion . Gasoline- powered vehicles recover chemical potential energy from gasoline .

Nuclear potential energy

The nuclear energy is a reaction in which two atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus.

The largest reserve of potential energy in the universe is nuclear energy . On earth, it is the large disintegrating atoms that break down into smaller atoms. At that time, they release a large amount of energy.

Electrostatic potential energy

Electrostatic or electrical energy represents the energy transferred from one system to another (or stored) thanks to electricity, that is, by a movement of electrical charges. Being thus more than an energy in itself, it is a vector of energy.


  • ball acquires, when it is lifted , a gravitational potential energy , which is not only apparent when we drop it.
  • During a combustion process , oil, gas, or coal convert their chemical energy into heat , and often light.
  • In nuclear power plants , fission reactions of the uranium nuclei take place and part of the heat generated is transformed into electricity.
  • Systems that provide electrical transfers such as batteries or alternators are an example of electrostatic energy.

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