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Chemistry LibreTexts

8.1: The Basics of Energy

  • Page ID
  • Skills to Develop

    • Define energy, distinguish types of energy, and describe the nature of energy changes that accompany chemical and physical changes
    • Distinguish the related properties of heat, thermal energy, and temperature

    Chemical changes and their accompanying changes in energy are important parts of our everyday world (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). The macronutrients in food (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) undergo metabolic reactions that provide the energy to keep our bodies functioning. We burn a variety of fuels (gasoline, natural gas, coal) to produce energy for transportation, heating, and the generation of electricity. Industrial chemical reactions use enormous amounts of energy to produce raw materials (such as iron and aluminum). Energy is then used to manufacture those raw materials into useful products, such as cars, skyscrapers, and bridges.

    Three pictures are shown and labeled a, b, and c. Picture a is a cheeseburger. Picture b depicts a highway that is full of traffic. Picture c is a view into an industrial metal furnace. The view into the furnace shows a hot fire burning inside.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The energy involved in chemical changes is important to our daily lives: (a) A cheeseburger for lunch provides the energy you need to get through the rest of the day; (b) the combustion of gasoline provides the energy that moves your car (and you) between home, work, and school; and (c) coke, a processed form of coal, provides the energy needed to convert iron ore into iron, which is essential for making many of the products we use daily. (credit a: modification of work by “Pink Sherbet Photography”/Flickr; credit b: modification of work by Jeffery Turner).

    Over 90% of the energy we use comes originally from the sun. Every day, the sun provides the earth with almost 10,000 times the amount of energy necessary to meet all of the world’s energy needs for that day. Our challenge is to find ways to convert and store incoming solar energy so that it can be used in reactions or chemical processes that are both convenient and nonpolluting. Plants and many bacteria capture solar energy through photosynthesis. We release the energy stored in plants when we burn wood or plant products such as ethanol. We also use this energy to fuel our bodies by eating food that comes directly from plants or from animals that got their energy by eating plants. Burning coal and petroleum also releases stored solar energy: These fuels are fossilized plant and animal matter.

    This chapter will introduce the basic ideas of an important area of science concerned with the amount of heat absorbed or released during chemical and physical changes—an area called thermochemistry. The concepts introduced in this chapter are widely used in almost all scientific and technical fields. Food scientists use them to determine the energy content of foods. Biologists study the energetics of living organisms, such as the metabolic combustion of sugar into carbon dioxide and water. The oil, gas, and transportation industries, renewable energy providers, and many others endeavor to find better methods to produce energy for our commercial and personal needs. Engineers strive to improve energy efficiency, find better ways to heat and cool our homes, refrigerate our food and drinks, and meet the energy and cooling needs of computers and electronics, among other applications. Understanding thermochemical principles is essential for chemists, physicists, biologists, geologists, every type of engineer, and just about anyone who studies or does any kind of science.


    Energy can be defined as the capacity to supply heat or do work. One type of work (w) is the process of causing matter to move against an opposing force. For example, we do work when we inflate a bicycle tire—we move matter (the air in the pump) against the opposing force of the air surrounding the tire.

    Like matter, energy comes in different types. One scheme classifies energy into two types: potential energy, the energy an object has because of its relative position, composition, or condition, and kinetic energy, the energy that an object possesses because of its motion. Water at the top of a waterfall or dam has potential energy because of its position; when it flows downward through generators, it has kinetic energy that can be used to do work and produce electricity in a hydroelectric plant (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). A battery has potential energy because the chemicals within it can produce electricity that can do work.

    Two pictures are shown and labeled a and b. Picture a shows a large waterfall with water falling from a high elevation at the top of the falls to a lower elevation. The second picture is a view looking down into the Hoover Dam. Water is shown behind the high wall of the dam on one side and at the base of the dam on the other.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): (a) Water that is higher in elevation, for example, at the top of Victoria Falls, has a higher potential energy than water at a lower elevation. As the water falls, some of its potential energy is converted into kinetic energy. (b) If the water flows through generators at the bottom of a dam, such as the Hoover Dam shown here, its kinetic energy is converted into electrical energy. (credit a: modification of work by Steve Jurvetson; credit b: modification of work by “curimedia”/Wikimedia commons).

    Energy can be converted from one form into another, but all of the energy present before a change occurs always exists in some form after the change is completed. This observation is expressed in the law of conservation of energy: during a chemical or physical change, energy can be neither created nor destroyed, although it can be changed in form. (This is also one version of the first law of thermodynamics, as you will learn later.)

    When one substance is converted into another, there is always an associated conversion of one form of energy into another. Heat is usually released or absorbed, but sometimes the conversion involves light, electrical energy, or some other form of energy. For example, chemical energy (a type of potential energy) is stored in the molecules that compose gasoline. When gasoline is combusted within the cylinders of a car’s engine, the rapidly expanding gaseous products of this chemical reaction generate mechanical energy (a type of kinetic energy) when they move the cylinders’ pistons.

    According to the law of conservation of matter (seen in an earlier chapter), there is no detectable change in the total amount of matter during a chemical change. When chemical reactions occur, the energy changes are relatively modest and the mass changes are too small to measure, so the laws of conservation of matter and energy hold well. However, in nuclear reactions, the energy changes are much larger (by factors of a million or so), the mass changes are measurable, and matter-energy conversions are significant. This will be examined in more detail in a later chapter on nuclear chemistry. To encompass both chemical and nuclear changes, we combine these laws into one statement: The total quantity of matter and energy in the universe is fixed.

    Thermal Energy, Temperature, and Heat

    Thermal energy is kinetic energy associated with the random motion of atoms and molecules. Temperature is a quantitative measure of “hot” or “cold.” When the atoms and molecules in an object are moving or vibrating quickly, they have a higher average kinetic energy (KE), and we say that the object is “hot.” When the atoms and molecules are moving slowly, they have lower KE, and we say that the object is “cold” (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)). Assuming that no chemical reaction or phase change (such as melting or vaporizing) occurs, increasing the amount of thermal energy in a sample of matter will cause its temperature to increase. And, assuming that no chemical reaction or phase change (such as condensation or freezing) occurs, decreasing the amount of thermal energy in a sample of matter will cause its temperature to decrease.

    'Two molecular drawings are shown and labeled a and b. Drawing a is a box containing fourteen red spheres that are surrounded by lines indicating that the particles are moving rapidly. This drawing has a label that reads “Hot water.” Drawing b depicts another box of equal size that also contains fourteen spheres, but these are blue. They are all surrounded by smaller lines that depict some particle motion, but not as much as in drawing a. This drawing has a label that reads “Cold water.”

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): (a) The molecules in a sample of hot water move more rapidly than (b) those in a sample of cold water.

    Most substances expand as their temperature increases and contract as their temperature decreases. This property can be used to measure temperature changes, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\). The operation of many thermometers depends on the expansion and contraction of substances in response to temperature changes.

    A picture labeled a is shown as well as a pair of drawings labeled b. Picture a shows the lower portion of an alcohol thermometer. The thermometer has a printed scale to the left of the tube in the center that reads from negative forty degrees at the bottom to forty degrees at the top. It also has a scale printed to the right of the tube that reads from negative thirty degrees at the bottom to thirty five degrees at the top. On both scales, the volume of the alcohol in the tube reads between nine and ten degrees. The two images labeled b both depict a metal strip coiled into a spiral and composed of brass and steel. The left coil, which is loosely coiled, is labeled along its upper edge with the 30 degrees C and 10 degrees C. The end of the coil is near the 30 degrees C label. The right hand coil is much more tightly wound and the end is near the 10 degree C label. Bimetal_coil_reacts_to_lighter.gif

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): (a) In an alcohol or mercury thermometer, the liquid (dyed red for visibility) expands when heated and contracts when cooled, much more so than the glass tube that contains the liquid. (b) In a bimetallic thermometer, two different metals (such as brass and steel) form a two-layered strip. When heated or cooled, one of the metals (brass) expands or contracts more than the other metal (steel), causing the strip to coil or uncoil. Both types of thermometers have a calibrated scale that indicates the temperature. (credit a: modification of work by “dwstucke”/Flickr). (c) The demonstration allows one to view the effects of heating and cooling a coiled bimetallic strip.A bimetallic coil from a thermometer reacts to the heat from a lighter, by uncoiling and then coiling back up when the lighter is removed. Animation used with permission from Hustvedt (via Wikipedia)

    Heat (q) is the transfer of thermal energy between two bodies at different temperatures. Heat flow (a redundant term, but one commonly used) increases the thermal energy of one body and decreases the thermal energy of the other. Suppose we initially have a high temperature (and high thermal energy) substance (H) and a low temperature (and low thermal energy) substance (L). The atoms and molecules in H have a higher average KE than those in L. If we place substance H in contact with substance L, the thermal energy will flow spontaneously from substance H to substance L. The temperature of substance H will decrease, as will the average KE of its molecules; the temperature of substance L will increase, along with the average KE of its molecules. Heat flow will continue until the two substances are at the same temperature (Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\)).

    Three drawings are shown and labeled a, b, and c, respectively. The first drawing labeled a depicts two boxes, with a space in between and the pair is captioned “Different temperatures.” The left hand box is labeled H and holds fourteen well-spaced red spheres with lines drawn around them to indicate rapid motion. The right hand box is labeled L and depicts fourteen blue spheres that are closer together than the red spheres and have smaller lines around them showing less particle motion. The second drawing labeled b depicts two boxes that are touching one another. The left box is labeled H and contains fourteen maroon spheres that are spaced evenly apart. There are tiny lines around each sphere depicting particle movement. The right box is labeled L and holds fourteen purple spheres that are slightly closer together than the maroon spheres. There are also tiny lines around each sphere depicting particle movement. A black arrow points from the left box to the right box and the pair of diagrams is captioned “Contact.” The third drawing labeled c, is labeled “Thermal equilibrium.” There are two boxes shown in contact with one another. Both boxes contain fourteen purple spheres with small lines around them depicting moderate movement. The left box is labeled H and the right box is labeled L.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): (a) Substances H and L are initially at different temperatures, and their atoms have different average kinetic energies. (b) When they are put into contact with each other, collisions between the molecules result in the transfer of kinetic (thermal) energy from the hotter to the cooler matter. (c) The two objects reach “thermal equilibrium” when both substances are at the same temperature, and their molecules have the same average kinetic energy.

    Matter undergoing chemical reactions and physical changes can release or absorb heat. A change that releases heat is called an exothermic process. For example, the combustion reaction that occurs when using an oxyacetylene torch is an exothermic process—this process also releases energy in the form of light as evidenced by the torch’s flame (Figure \(\PageIndex{6a}\)). A reaction or change that absorbs heat is an endothermic process. A cold pack used to treat muscle strains provides an example of an endothermic process. When the substances in the cold pack (water and a salt like ammonium nitrate) are brought together, the resulting process absorbs heat, leading to the sensation of cold.

    Two pictures are shown and labeled a and b. Picture a shows a metal railroad tie being cut with the flame of an acetylene torch. Picture b shows a chemical cold pack containing ammonium nitrate.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): (a) An oxyacetylene torch produces heat by the combustion of acetylene in oxygen. The energy released by this exothermic reaction heats and then melts the metal being cut. The sparks are tiny bits of the molten metal flying away. (b) A cold pack uses an endothermic process to create the sensation of cold. (credit a: modification of work by “Skatebiker”/Wikimedia commons).

    Units of Energy

    Energy is measured in terms of its ability to perform work or to transfer heat. Mechanical work is done when a force f displaces an object by a distance d:

    \[w = f × d\]

    The basic unit of energy is the joule. One joule is the amount of work done when a force of 1 newton acts over a distance of 1 m; thus 1 J = 1 N-m. The newton is the amount of force required to accelerate a 1-kg mass by 1 m/sec2, so the basic dimensions of the joule are kg m2 s–2. Historically, energy was measured in units of calories (cal). A calorie is the amount of energy required to raise one gram of water by 1 degree C (1 kelvin). However, this quantity depends on the atmospheric pressure and the starting temperature of the water. The ease of measurement of energy changes in calories has meant that the calorie is still frequently used. The Calorie (with a capital C), or large calorie, commonly used in quantifying food energy content, is a kilocalorie. Another common unit of measurement of energy is the BTU (British thermal unit) which is defined in terms of the heating effect on water. Because of the many forms that energy can take, there are a correspondingly large number of units in which it can be expressed, a few of which are summarized below.


    1 calorie will raise the temperature of 1 g of water by 1 C°. The “dietary” calorie is actually 1 kcal. An average young adult expends about 1800 kcal per day just to stay alive. (you should know this definition)

    1 cal = 4.184 J
    1 BTU (British Thermal Unit) will raise the temperature of 1 lb of water by 1F°. 1 BTU = 1055 J
    The erg is the c.g.s. unit of energy and a very small one; the work done when a 1-dyne force acts over a distance of 1 cm.

    1 J = 107 ergs
    1 erg = 1 d-cm = 1 g cm2 s–2

    The electron-volt is even tinier: 1 eV is the work required to move a unit electric charge (1 C) through a potential difference of 1 volt. 1 J = 6.24 × 1018 eV
    The watt is a unit of power, which measures the rate of energy flow in J sec–1. Thus the watt-hour is a unit of energy. An average human consumes energy at a rate of about 100 watts; the brain alone runs at about 5 watts.

    1 J = 2.78 × 10–4watt-hr
    1 w-h = 3.6 kJ

    The liter-atmosphere is a variant of force-displacement work associated with volume changes in gases. 1 L-atm = 101.325 J
    The huge quantities of energy consumed by cities and countries are expressed in quads; the therm is a similar but smaller unit. 1 quad = 1015 Btu = 1.05 × 1018 J
    If the object is to obliterate cities or countries with nuclear weapons, the energy unit of choice is the ton of TNT equivalent. 1 ton of TNT = 4.184 GJ
    (by definition)
    In terms of fossil fuels, we have barrel-of-oil equivalent, cubic-meter-of-natural gas equivalent, and ton-of-coal equivalent.

    1 bboe = 6.1 GJ
    1 cmge = 37-39 mJ
    1 toce = 29 GJ



    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\): A video summary of Energy and Chemistry.

    Energy is the capacity to do work (applying a force to move matter). Kinetic energy (KE) is the energy of motion; potential energy is energy due to relative position, composition, or condition. When energy is converted from one form into another, energy is neither created nor destroyed (law of conservation of energy or first law of thermodynamics). Matter has thermal energy due to the KE of its molecules and temperature that corresponds to the average KE of its molecules. Heat is energy that is transferred between objects at different temperatures; it flows from a high to a low temperature. Chemical and physical processes can absorb heat (endothermic) or release heat (exothermic). The SI unit of energy, heat, and work is the joule (J). Specific heat and heat capacity are measures of the energy needed to change the temperature of a substance or object. The amount of heat absorbed or released by a substance depends directly on the type of substance, its mass, and the temperature change it undergoes.

    Key Equations

    • \(q=c×m×ΔT=c×m×(T_\ce{final}−T_\ce{initial})\)


    calorie (cal)
    unit of heat or other energy; the amount of energy required to raise 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius; 1 cal is defined as 4.184 J
    endothermic process
    chemical reaction or physical change that absorbs heat
    capacity to supply heat or do work
    exothermic process
    chemical reaction or physical change that releases heat
    joule (J)
    SI unit of energy; 1 joule is the kinetic energy of an object with a mass of 2 kilograms moving with a velocity of 1 meter per second, 1 J = 1 kg m2/s and 4.184 J = 1 cal
    kinetic energy
    energy of a moving body, in joules, equal to \(\dfrac{1}{2}mv^2\) (where m = mass and v = velocity)
    potential energy
    energy of a particle or system of particles derived from relative position, composition, or condition
    intensive property of matter that is a quantitative measure of “hotness” and “coldness”
    thermal energy
    kinetic energy associated with the random motion of atoms and molecules
    study of measuring the amount of heat absorbed or released during a chemical reaction or a physical change
    work (w)
    energy transfer due to changes in external, macroscopic variables such as pressure and volume; or causing matter to move against an opposing force