Biology » Cell Metabolism » Potential; Kinetic; Free and Activation Energy

Types of Energy

By the end of this lesson and the next few, you should be able to:

  • Define “energy”
  • Explain the difference between kinetic and potential energy
  • Discuss the concepts of free energy and activation energy
  • Describe endergonic and exergonic reactions

What is energy?

Energy is defined as the ability to do work. As you’ve learned, energy exists in different forms. For example, electrical energy, light energy, and heat energy are all different types of energy. While these are all familiar types of energy that one can see or feel, there is another type of energy that is much less tangible. This energy is associated with something as simple as an object held above the ground. In order to appreciate the way energy flows into and out of biological systems, it is important to understand more about the different types of energy that exist in the physical world.

Types of Energy

When an object is in motion, there is energy associated with that object. In the example of an airplane in flight, there is a great deal of energy associated with the motion of the airplane. This is because moving objects are capable of enacting a change, or doing work.

Energy associated with motion

Think of a wrecking ball. Even a slow-moving wrecking ball can do a great deal of damage to other objects. However, a wrecking ball that is not in motion is incapable of performing work. We refer to energy associated with objects in motion as kinetic energy. A speeding bullet, a walking person, the rapid movement of molecules in the air (which produces heat), and electromagnetic radiation like light all have kinetic energy.

Note that a wrecking ball is a heavy steel ball, usually hung from a crane, that is used for demolishing large buildings. It was most commonly in use during the 1950s and 1960s. (See image below.)

Types of Energy

Wrecking ball at work during the demolition of a old milling building in Dresden, Plauen district. Image credit: Stefan Kühn / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Potential energy

Now what if that same motionless wrecking ball is lifted two stories above a car with a crane? If the suspended wrecking ball is unmoving, is there energy associated with it? The answer is yes. The suspended wrecking ball has energy associated with it that is fundamentally different from the kinetic energy of objects in motion. This form of energy results from the fact that there is the potential for the wrecking ball to do work. If it is released, indeed it would do work. Because this type of energy refers to the potential to do work, we refer to it as potential energy.

Objects transfer their energy between kinetic and potential in the following way: As the wrecking ball hangs motionless, it has zero kinetic and 100 percent potential energy. Once it is released, its kinetic energy begins to increase because it builds speed due to gravity. At the same time, as it nears the ground, it loses potential energy. Somewhere mid-fall it has 50 percent kinetic and 50 percent potential energy. Just before it hits the ground, the ball has nearly lost its potential energy and has near-maximal kinetic energy. Other examples of potential energy include the energy of water held behind a dam (see image below), or a person about to skydive out of an airplane.

Types of Energy

Water behind a dam has potential energy. Moving water, such as in a waterfall or a rapidly flowing river, has kinetic energy. Image credit: “dam”: modification of work by “Pascal”/Flickr; “waterfall”: modification of work by Frank Gualtieri

Other forms of potential energy

Potential energy is not only associated with the location of matter (such as a child sitting on a tree branch), but also with the structure of matter. A spring on the ground has potential energy if it is compressed; so does a rubber band that is pulled taut. The very existence of living cells relies heavily on structural potential energy.

On a chemical level, the bonds that hold the atoms of molecules together have potential energy. Remember that anabolic cellular pathways require energy to synthesize complex molecules from simpler ones. Also recall that catabolic pathways release energy when complex molecules are broken down. The fact that energy can be released by the breakdown of certain chemical bonds implies that those bonds have potential energy.

Types of Energy

The molecules in gasoline (octane, the chemical formula shown) contain chemical energy within the chemical bonds. This energy is transformed into kinetic energy that allows a car to race on a racetrack. Image credit: modification of work by Russell Trow; OpenStax Biology

In fact, there is potential energy stored within the bonds of all the food molecules we eat, which is eventually harnessed for use. This is because these bonds can release energy when broken. The type of potential energy that exists within chemical bonds, and is released when those bonds are broken, is what we refer to as chemical energy (see image above). Chemical energy is responsible for providing living cells with energy from food. The release of energy is brought about by breaking the molecular bonds within fuel molecules.

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