Potential energy is stored energy from an object. Instead of coming from motion, it can come from its position relative to others, internal stress, electric charge, or its condition. This object has the capability of producing energy as these conditions change. This energy could be mechanical energy, chemical energy, electric energy, nuclear energy, or magnetic energy.
When something has a high position, its gravitational potential energy is high. For example, a book on a high bookshelf has higher potential energy than a book on the bottom shelf because it has farther to fall. Other examples of items with gravitational potential energy include:
- A raised weight
- Water that is behind a dam
- A car that is parked at the top of a hill
- A yoyo before it is released
- River water at the top of a waterfall
- A book on a table before it falls
- A child at the top of a slide
- Ripe fruit before it falls
The material an item is made of can affect its potential energy as well. An elastic ball has higher elasticity than a bowling ball; therefore, it will bounce higher with the same amount of force. Here are some more examples of items with elastic potential energy.
- A coiled spring
- An archer's bow with the string pulled back
- A stretched rubber band
- Soccer balls before players kick them
- A diving board just before someone dives
If you’d like examples of kinetic mechanical energy, check out this helpful list of everyday items that use mechanical energy.
Chemical energy occurs when energy is released during a chemical reaction. Potential chemical energy is the energy stored in the bonds of these chemicals, ready to react with another chemical. Some examples include:
- A charged battery
- Green leaves before the sun shines on them (potential photosynthesis)
- Gasoline before it is ignited
- Fireworks before they are launched
- Wood in a fireplace before it burns
- Iron before it gets wet and rusts
- Fruit juice before it ferments
- The wick in a candle
Looking for more examples of chemical energy? Check out an article that details nine ways you might see chemical energy in daily life.
When you see a light switch that’s off, you can’t see the charge that’s waiting to flow through the wires. That’s just one example of electric potential energy. Additional examples include:
- An incandescent light bulb that is turned off
- Your car's headlights before they are turned on
- A radio tower that is not working
- A cell phone that is turned off
- Solar cells at night
- A black light turned off
- A television before it is turned on
For more examples of electric energy in action, read an article about household items that use electric energy.
Like gravitational potential energy, magnetic potential energy affects how items work based on their position. Items with high magnetic potential energy, such as metal spoons or ball bearings, respond strongly to a magnetic force. Objects with lower magnetic potential energy, such as a plastic spoon or a rubber ball, are not as affected by a magnetic pull.
The laws of physics mandate that almost every item has some kind of potential energy. When force is applied to the object, it converts to kinetic energy.
Our helpful article explains how kinetic energy appears in the world around us.