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Chemistry LibreTexts

1.4: Chemistry and Energy

  • Page ID
  • Skills to Develop

    • Define heat and work.
    • Distinguish between kinetic energy and potential energy.
    • State the law of conservation of matter and energy.

    Both physical and chemical changes of matter also involve changes in energy. Just like matter, energy is a term that we are all familiar with and use on a daily basis. Before you go on a long hike, you eat an energy bar; every month, the energy bill is paid; on TV, politicians argue about the energy crisis. But what is energy? If you stop to think about it, energy is hard to define. When you plug a lamp into an electric socket, you see energy in the form of light, but when you plug a heating pad into that same socket, you only feel warmth. These appliances use electrical energy from the flow of current to the socket, and that energy may in turn have been produced a number of different ways: from burning coal or natural gas, from wind or hydroelectric power, or even from a nuclear reactor. Scientists define all these types of "energy" as fundamentally the same thing: the ability to do work or produce heat. An understanding of this definition of energy is necessary for an understanding of chemistry, because all chemical processes involve, and are governed by, changes in energy.

    Ability to Do Work or Produce Heat

    When we speak of using energy, we are really referring to transferring energy from one place to another. When you use energy to throw a ball, you transfer energy from your body to the ball, and this causes the ball to fly through the air. When you use energy to warm your house, you transfer energy from the furnace to the air in your home, and this causes the temperature in your house to rise. In a sense, we only "see" energy when it is moved from one object to another. Energy can be transferred in two fundamental ways: as heat or as work.

    When scientists speak of heat, they are referring to energy that is transferred from an object with a higher temperature to an object with a lower temperature as a result of the temperature difference. Heat will "flow" from the hot object to the cold object until both end up at the same temperature. When you cook with a metal pot, you witness energy being transferred in the form of heat. Initially, only the stove element is hot – the pot and the food inside the pot are cold. As a result, heat moves from the hot stove element to the cold pot. After a while, enough heat is transferred from the stove to the pot, raising the temperature of the pot and all of its contents (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Energy is transferred as heat from the hot stove element to the cooler pot until the pot and its contents become just as hot as the element. The energy that is transferred into the pot as heat is then used to cook the food.

    Heat is only one way in which energy can be transferred. Energy can also be transferred as work. The scientific definition of work is force (any push or pull) applied over a distance. Whenever you push an object and cause it to move, you've done work, and you've transferred some of your energy to the object. At this point, it's important to warn you of a common misconception. Sometimes we think that the amount of work done can be measured by the amount of effort put in. This may be true in everyday life, but it isn't true in science. By definition, scientific work requires that force be applied over a distance. It does not matter how hard you push or how hard you pull. If you have not moved the object, you haven't done any work on it (although maybe on your muscles!)

    So far, we've talked about the two ways in which energy can be transferred from one place, or object, to another. Energy can be transferred as heat, and energy can be transferred as work. But the question still remains – what IS energy? We'll try to at least partially tackle that question in the next section.

    Kinetic Energy

    Machines use energy, our bodies use energy, energy comes from the sun, energy comes from volcanoes, energy causes forest fires, and energy helps us to grow food. With all these seemingly different types of energy, we can actually simplify the situation to only two different forms of energy – kinetic energy and potential energy. Kinetic energy is energy associated with motion. When an object is moving, it has kinetic energy. When the object stops moving, it has no kinetic energy. While all moving objects have kinetic energy, not all moving objects have the same amount of kinetic energy. The amount of kinetic energy possessed by an object is determined by its mass and its speed. The heavier an object is and the faster it is moving, the more kinetic energy it has.

    Kinetic energy is very common, and it's easy to spot examples of it in the world around you. Sometimes we even try to capture kinetic energy and use it to power things like our home appliances. If you're from California, you might have driven through the Tehachapi Pass near Mojave or the Montezuma Hills in Solano County and seen the windmills lining the slopes of the mountains (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). These are two of the larger wind farms in North America. As wind rushes along the hills, the kinetic energy of the moving air particles turns the windmills, trapping the wind's kinetic energy so that people can use it in their houses and offices.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): A wind farm in Solano County harnesses the kinetic energy of the wind. Attribution: BDS2006 at the English Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

    Potential Energy

    Potential energy is stored energy. It is energy that remains available until we choose to use it. Think of a battery in a flashlight. If you leave a flashlight on, the battery will run out of energy within a couple of hours, and your flashlight will die. If, however, you only use the flashlight when you need it, and you turn it off when you don’t, the battery will last for days or even months. The battery contains a certain amount of energy, and it will power the flashlight for a certain amount of time, but because the battery stores potential energy, you can choose to use the energy all at once, or you can save it and only use a small amount at a time.

    Any stored energy is potential energy. However, there are a lot of different ways in which energy can be stored, and that can make potential energy very difficult to recognize. In general, an object has potential energy because of its position relative to another object. For example when you hold a rock above the earth, it has potential energy because of its position relative to the ground. You can tell that this is potential energy because the energy is stored for as long as you hold the rock in the air. Once you drop the rock, though, the stored energy is released as kinetic energy as the rock falls.

    Chemical Energy

    There are other common examples of potential energy. A ball at the top of a hill stores potential energy until it is allowed to roll to the bottom. When you hold two magnets next to each other, they store potential energy too. For some examples of potential energy, though, it's harder to see how "position" is involved. In chemistry, we are often interested in what is called chemical potential energy. Chemical potential energy is energy stored in the atoms, molecules, and chemical bonds that make up matter. How does this depend on position?

    As you learned earlier, the world, and all of the chemicals in it are made up of atoms and molecules. These store potential energy that is dependent on their positions relative to one another. Of course, you can't see atoms and molecules. Nevertheless, scientists do know a lot about the ways in which atoms and molecules interact, and this allows them to figure out how much potential energy is stored in a specific quantity of a particular chemical. Different chemicals have different amounts of potential energy because they are made up of different atoms, and those atoms have different positions relative to one another.

    Since different chemicals have different amounts of potential energy, scientists will sometimes say potential energy depends not only on position, but also on composition. Composition affects potential energy because it determines which molecules and atoms end up next to each other. For example, the total potential energy in a cup of pure water is different than the total potential energy in a cup of apple juice, because the cup of water and the cup of apple juice are composed of different amounts of different chemicals.

    At this point, you might be wondering just how useful chemical potential energy is. If you want to release the potential energy stored in an object held above the ground, you just drop it. But how do you get potential energy out of chemicals? It's actually not that difficult. You use the fact that different chemicals have different amounts of potential energy. If you start with chemicals that have a lot of potential energy and allow them to react and form chemicals with less potential energy, all the extra energy that was in the chemicals at the beginning but not at the end is released. Combustion of fuels such as gasoline, natural gas, or wood is an example of using a chemical reaction to release energy as heat and/or work. The molecules in the fuel contain more potential energy than the products (typically carbon dioxide and water). Thus, extra energy is released in the reaction that can then be used to do useful processes.

    The Law of Conservation

    At this point, we can state one of the most fundamental scientific laws that will guide all of our following discussions of chemistry: the law of conservation of matter and energy. We have seen that matter can change its form either physically or chemically. In both cases, however, the amount of matter involved in any change remains the same – the components of matter may be moved around and recombined in different substances, but the matter itself is not created or destroyed. In the same way, changes of energy allow different types of energy to be interconverted – potential energy to kinetic energy, heat energy to mechanical energy, mechanical energy to electrical energy, chemical energy to heat energy, and so on. However, again, in any change of energy, the energy itself is neither created nor destroyed but only transferred. We say that both matter and energy are therefore conserved. This behavior is so consistent throughout all we observe in the universe that we state it as a scientific law.

    The Law of Conservation of Matter

    Matter (or mass) can be neither created nor destroyed, only rearranged. The total mass of substances in a physical or chemical process does not change.

    The Law of Conservation of Energy

    Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only interconverted. The total energy of the universe does not change.

    Under normal conditions (that is, in the physical and chemical processes that we usually observe), these two laws hold independently. However, according to the modern theory first put forth by Albert Einstein in his famous E = mc2 formula, it turns out that matter and energy are actually two sides of the same coin. The amount of mass before and after a reaction is not exactly the same because a tiny amount of matter is converted to energy, or vice versa. Under normal conditions, this difference is so small that it is not measurable by any device known to man; on the other hand, in certain extreme conditions, such as nuclear reactions, the interconversion of mass and energy is quite large and measurable. Therefore, it would be most correct to express the laws of conservation as one law of conservation of matter AND energy. In your study of chemical reactions, however, you can always assume that the conservation of matter and the conservation of energy will hold true!


    Any time we use energy, we transfer energy from one object to another. Energy can be transferred in one of two ways – as heat, or as work. Heat is the term given to energy that is transferred from a hot object to a cooler object due to the difference in their temperatures. Work is the term given to energy that is transferred as a result of a force applied over a distance. Energy comes in two fundamentally different forms – kinetic energy and potential energy. Kinetic energy is the energy of motion. Potential energy is stored energy that depends on the position of an object relative to another object. Chemical potential energy is a special type of potential energy that depends on the positions of different atoms and molecules relative to one another. Chemical potential energy can also be thought of as depending on chemical composition. Energy can be converted from one form to another. The total amount of mass and energy in the universe is conserved.