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Energy Transfer: Examples & Overview

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  • 0:00 Energy: The Ability to Do Work
  • 0:40 The Sun-Powered Universe
  • 1:50 What is Energy Transfer?
  • 2:45 Transferring Energy
  • 4:30 Changing Forms of Energy
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

Learn about energy and how the sun provides the energy needed to sustain life on Earth. Discover energy transfer and how energy is neither created nor destroyed, but moves from one place to another or changes from one form to another.

Energy: The Ability to Do Work

I don't know about you, but when I don't have any energy, I find it hard to get anything done. This idea actually applies to all energy, which scientists define as the ability to do work. Work itself varies, from the sun warming us and providing light on a sunny afternoon to sound traveling across a playground. So, more specifically, energy makes the things around us move or change.

We measure work in joules (J), calculated by multiplying force times distance. One joule of work is equivalent to the force needed to lift an apple the distance of one meter into the air.

The Sun-Powered Universe

Almost all energy comes directly or indirectly from the sun (except nuclear energy, but we'll get to that later). The sun gives off a specific type of energy, radiant energy, which is sometimes called solar radiation.

The sun radiates both the light and the heat that allow life to thrive here on Earth. Plants, for example, take in sunlight directly and use it as an energy source through a process called photosynthesis. The Earth's atmosphere is also warmed by the sun, so our planet is the optimal temperature to sustain life. Earth, like the porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, is just right. Any closer to the sun and it would be too hot; any farther away and it would be too cold.

One indirect use of the sun's energy is when humans eat plants and other plant-eating animals to fuel our bodies. Another example is fossil fuels, coal, natural gas, and oil, so named because they are the end product of animal and plant remains stewing deep beneath the Earth's surface for millions of years. Even the gas we use to run our cars was once plant and animal life powered by the sun.

What is Energy Transfer?

The above examples of how the sun's energy directly and indirectly sustains life on Earth also show how easily energy passes from one person, place, or thing to the next. When you eat an apple, you take a product of the sun's energy, the apple, and use it to fuel your body. Likewise, the energy from a rushing river generates electricity in a hydroelectric plant - and that electricity powers our light bulbs, allowing us to stay up late and do even more work.

When energy passes from one place to another, we call that energy transfer. The Law of Conservation of Energy states that no matter how hard we try, we can't create or destroy energy. Energy either transfers from one object to another, like a quarterback throwing a football, or it can change from one form of energy to another, like how we process food to fuel our bodies.

Transferring Energy

There are three main ways energy transfers from one place to another, or one object to another: through the movement of objects, the movement of waves, and the movement of heat.

Matter is the scientific word for all the stuff in the universe, from water to air to Cheetos. When matter is in motion, energy is, too. When a quarterback throws a football, the energy from his throw is transferred to the ball. When wind blows in the trees, you can see the leaves and branches take on the wind's energy.

Some energy, like sound, travels in waves through matter. The matter the waves travel through is called a medium. Both moving matter and energy moving through a medium are considered mechanical energy because they involve movement caused by or related to physical forces.

It's easy to think of the medium as being the one doing all the moving, but if you think about sound, you know that the air isn't what moves from your mouth to your friend's ear across the table. Instead, the vibrations of your voice move through the air like electricity through a wire.

Electromagnetic energy has electric and magnetic properties that mechanical energy does not have and doesn't need a physical medium to move through. Light waves, radio waves, and microwaves are all types of electromagnetic energy and since they don't need a medium to travel through, they can exist in space where there is no air.

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