What Is Energy? A Guide to Understanding Energy

What Is Energy? A Guide to Understanding Energy

by | Educational, Energy

Energy is all around us. It’s responsible for making everything happen, whether you want to use any household appliance, take a walk through the park, drive your car across town, or do anything that involves movement or activity. But what is energy? Though we are constantly surrounded by it, the nature of this elusive yet omnipresent force is often misunderstood — or not thought about at all.  

What Is Energy? 

Simply put, energy is the ability to do work. Work in this context is when a force acts upon an object to cause a displacement of the object. There are three main components of work: force, displacement, and cause. Energy is the quantitative amount of work that must be done to an object to create these components. 

Energy is also a conserved quantity with a finite amount in the universe, though there is a near limitless supply. It can be measured and stored in various ways, but it is not a material substance, even though it can be converted directly into matter.  

 Although we often hear or read about energy consumption, it’s never really consumed. It is actually transferred between states and from one form or object to the next, always doing work on the objects in the process.   

Why Is Energy Important? 

Energy is essential for all life and all processes that occur across the entire universe. On Earth, the sun is the ultimate source of all energy that is available and used by people, animals, plants, and microorganisms. This energy may come directly, such as in the form of photosynthesis, or indirectly, such as in the form of fossil fuels, which long ago trapped the energy of the sun that is released when burned. 

Why Is Energy So Important in Our Lives? 

Energy is so important in our daily lives because it is a basic human need. We use energy to not only heat our human-made structures but we use it to cool them as well. Energy is necessary for getting up out of bed, walking down the street, or even lifting your finger. It’s also necessary in abundance for all types of modern conveniences, from light bulbs to appliances to vehicles. 

Why Do We Need Energy? 

We need energy for countless reasons. First and foremost, it is needed to simply stay alive. Energy is in everything that we eat, consume, or use.  

Energy fuels and regulates the body’s natural internal functions. It repairs cells and body tissue, is used to build muscle, and is necessary to maintain homeostasis — and the harsher the environment, the more energy is needed to maintain this.  

Going a little deeper into the human body, energy is needed to produce enzymes, contract and move muscles, and carry electrical impulses between cells. In society, energy is needed for everything from driving to watching television to keeping homes and businesses lit with artificial light.   

Energy is needed for almost anything and everything in life. Even when we are not paying attention to it, energy is present, regulating body functions while at rest or powering your household appliances even if they are turned off.  

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Where Does Our Energy Come From?  

Energy | Where it Came From - Sun and Solar

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Energy is all around us. Ultimately, nearly all energy comes from the sun, where nuclear fusion reactions create massive amounts of energy as atoms are fused in the core and released out towards Earth. But the energy we use in everyday life comes from a variety of sources that have captured and stored this initial energy.  

Where Can Energy Be Found? 

We can find available energy all over the world. When we eat food, we are consuming a form of stored chemical energy. If we are eating plants, we are consuming a primary source of energy, as these organisms use photosynthesis to capture the sun’s energy, which is then stored in their cells. If we are eating meat, we are consuming secondary sources of energy, usually from animals that have eaten primary producers.  

For societal and industrial uses, energy can be found stored in fossil fuels, in the atomic bonds of nuclear particles, or powered by the Earth’s processes such as wind power, hydropower, or geothermal energy. These are also considered primary energy sources, because we are extracting energy directly from them.  

Where Does Most Of Our Electrical Energy Come From?  

When it comes to our energy supply for daily life, the majority comes mainly from fossil fuels, nuclear power, and renewable energy sources like solar and biomass. Electricity, or electrical energy, is generated using these forms, mostly in large-scale grid generation but also in small-scale and off-grid production. Electricity falls into its own category as it’s an energy carrier, not a primary source.  

Fossil fuels used for electricity generation include coal, oil, and natural gas. Nuclear energy is unique as it is a nonrenewable form of electricity generation that does not produce carbon dioxide emissions. Nuclear power plants use fission, or the act of splitting atoms, to release high amounts of energy that are then used to boil water. The resulting steam turns a turbine that generates electricity.   

Renewable energy uses forms of energy that are much more readily available than fossil fuels, often taking energy from processes that are dictated by the sun (and in the case of solar energy, taking energy directly from the sun). Wind energy, hydropower, and geothermal all use Earth’s processes to spin turbines for electricity generation.  

What Are the Types of Energy Sources? 

Types of Energy | Sources  - Hand Holding Powe

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There are many different types of energy sources, but all of them fall under one of two main categories of energy: potential energy and kinetic energy. These are the basic types that are broadly responsible for all processes in the universe from planetary orbits to grass growing from soil.   

Potential energy is a form of energy that is stored in objects. These objects hold the potential to release this energy. This is due to their position, making potential energy relative to whatever factors are acting upon the objects.  

WIthin potential energy, there are two main types: elastic potential energy and gravitational potential energy. The former is best demonstrated in an object like a slingshot, which stores the energy that is created from pulling back the rubber band, while the latter is found in anything that is suspended above the ground or along an incline.   

Though gravitational and elastic potential energy are different, in both forms energy gained comes from the potential energy that was stored in the objects before being knocked out of equilibrium. The difference is in whether they were knocked out of this by elastic rebound or gravity.   

Kinetic energy is the energy of motion. It’s created only after potential energy is released, typically by gravity or elastic forces.  

When more potential energy is released, more work is done and the object in question begins to accelerate, which increases kinetic energy. The most important factors for kinetic energy are the velocity and the mass of the object carrying the energy. 

What Type of Energy Is Food? 

Chemical energy is stored in food, which we convert into usable energy to move our muscles, carry out cellular functions, and fuel the body’s natural systems. While chemical energy in food is commonly measured in calories, the official form of measurement for food energy is in Joules (J) — and it can be found on most packaging labels next to the calorie count. The Joule is the same unit of measurement for all types of energy, not just chemical.  

What Are Natural Sources of Energy? 

In a sense, everything is a natural source of energy. When we think of energy from fossil fuels or electricity that is manufactured by humans, all of this energy comes from natural sources — we have just developed ways of using the energy that had been stored inside these resources for a very long time.  

The sun is the de facto natural source of energy, since all energy on Earth ultimately comes from the star at the center of our solar system. However, natural energy could also refer to renewable or non-polluting energy, in which case solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and biomass could all be considered more “natural” than fossil fuels or even nuclear power.  

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Where Is Energy Stored? 

Energy is stored in many different areas, and in many different ways. Where this is stored depends on the type of energy or object in question. 

Where Is Energy Stored In A Molecule? 

Energy is stored in the chemical bonds of a molecule. These bonds are the forces that hold atoms together to form molecules. Some bonds are stronger than others, as there are different types. These include covalent, polar covalent, and ionic bonds. Atoms with a relatively similar electromagnetic force share electrons, connecting through covalent bonds. This is where much of the useful energy comes from within molecules. 

What Is Stored Energy Called?  

All stored energy is a form of potential energy. The way the energy is stored determines how you classify it. If it is stored in an object that will be released due to gravity pulling it towards the ground, then it is gravitational potential energy. If the energy is stored because of a force appalled to impart energy into the object, such as pulling on a bow or a slingshot, then it is elastic potential energy. The important thing to note is that any stored energy is always in the form of potential energy. 

Can Energy Be Created? 

You may have heard the phrase “energy cannot be created or destroyed,” which is also known as the first law of thermodynamics. But you may have also heard about creating energy in power plants or wasting energy by leaving the lights on. Though this may sound contradictory, it is really just a matter of tricky wording. In reality, when we talk about creating or using energy in everyday life, we are actually talking about energy conversion.   

The law of conservation of energy says that both energy and matter — which are the same thing in different states — cannot be created or destroyed. When energy is “created” by nuclear fission or other forms of industrial energy, it’s really just being released from where it was stored in whatever resources are being exploited. And when energy is “used,” it is not being destroyed, it is merely being transferred to another state, often as heat energy or kinetic energy.  

What Are the Forms of Energy? 

There are several different forms of energy, all of which are subcategories of potential or kinetic energy. These forms include chemical energy, electrical energy, radiant energy, thermal energy, and mechanical energy. 

Is Light A Form of Energy? 

Yes, light is a form of energy. Light travels both as particles, known as photons, and as electromagnetic waves, known as electromagnetic radiation. The length, or wavelength, of light determines the properties of light, including whether or not it is visible or harmful to human cells.  

Differing wavelengths can also tell us a great deal about the energy associated with light. For example, microwaves are very short wavelengths and are known throughout the world for their ability to quickly heat food, due to their electromagnetic energy. Radio waves are also directly dependent on their wavelength, as that is how radio stations and radio signals are coded. According to the length of waves being broadcast, receivers can tune in and turn the incoming waves into sounds and images.   

X-rays are another famous example of electromagnetic radiation doing wonders for human beings — they are able to pass through flesh but not bone, allowing us to map an image of the skeletal system as if we are able to see through the skin.  

Why Should We Conserve Energy Resources? 

Although energy cannot be created or destroyed, it is still important that we conserve it in the sense of being smart about using the available energy within our environment. Our decisions about how we use energy impact the planet’s natural systems in complex ways. It’s vital that we choose our energy sources carefully and be mindful of the amount of energy we use.  

Energy efficiency is also a major factor in conserving energy resources. Energy efficient appliances, vehicles, and buildings go a long way toward making good energy decisions — as well as ensuring your electricity comes from a reliable, efficient source.

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