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What is potential energy? It is the energy stored in a body or system. It can be due to its force field(a special kind of vector field that shows the intensity of a non-contact force at positions in space time) or configuration. Another definition is ‘ the energy difference between the energy of an object in a given position and its energy at a reference point. It is measured in joules.
It exists when there is a force pulls an object back towards a lower energy position. This is called the restoring force. An example is when gravity brings an object to the ground. The action of stretching the spring or lifting the mass requires energy to perform. The energy that went into lifting the object can not be destroyed, so it is stored as potential energy. If the object is dropped, the stored energy will be converted into kinetic energy by gravity(the restoring force).
There are various types of potential energy: the work of an elastic force is called elastic potential energy; work of a gravitational force is called gravitational potential energy; work of Columb force is called electric potential energy, and the work of the strong or weak nuclear forces is called nuclear potential energy.
Man has been using potential energy for thousands of years. To lift weights, in construction, and warfare. Look at the ancient catapult. It makes use of elastic potential energy and the trebuchet uses gravitational potential energy. Today, we have transferred that knowledge to better understand how the bodies in the solar system interact. You can find examples of potential energy in many aspects of everyday life. Just look around you.
We’ve also recorded related episodes of Astronomy Cast about Space Elevators. Listen here, Episode 144: Space Elevators.