Converting Sources of Energy to Useful Forms

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Learn about the many sources of energy humans rely on and how we convert them into forms that we can actually use for practical purposes. Take a quiz and see how much you've absorbed.

What Are Energy Sources?

We need energy. Your body needs energy to work. Your lights need energy to stay on. And your car needs energy to move down the highway. Our very existence and lives are dependent on it.

But where does energy come from? An energy source is a place we get our energy from. This includes renewable and non-renewable energy sources. Non-renewable energy sources are ones that require a material that can be used up, like oil, gas, coal and wood. Renewable energy sources are ones that keep coming continually, like wind, sunlight, the Earth's heat, tides, and water flowing in rivers. All of these things are energy sources humans use every day.

Deep down, all of these sources of energy are really from the Sun. That's where most of our energy really comes from. Oil, coal, wood and gas form from dead plants and animals, and before they died those animals ate other plants in their lives, and those plants all get their energy from the Sun. But even things like wind and water flow energy come from the Sun. Wind is driven by the Sun's heat, causing areas of the Earth to be hotter than others and drawing air from place to place. And water flow is only possible because the Sun evaporates water from the Earth to form clouds and then rain. That rain flows over the land in rivers, all driven by the Sun.

But all this energy takes lots of different forms that we can't use directly. Instead, we have to change it into useful forms like heat and electricity.

Refining and Burning Fuels

One of the first ways that humans used energy sources was for heat. We would burn wood and sit around a campfire to stay warm. Today, we can do the same thing with fuels like coal and gas. The process is called combustion and requires setting the fuel on fire by creating a spark.

Campfire Converts Energy into Heat
Campfire Converts Energy into Heat

However some fuels need to be adjusted or refined to use them efficiently. Oil can be put through complex processes to turn it into things like diesel and petroleum, and these are the fuels we put in our cars to power them.

Generating Electricity

These days, the main way we turn energy sources into useful forms is by generating electricity. Electricity is such a major part of our lives now that it accounts for a majority of our energy use. We use power plants to turn various energy sources into electricity. This is done by causing a turbine to rotate inside the magnetic field of a magnet. When that happens, the electrons in the turbine move, creating electricity.

Coal Power Plant
Coal Power Plant

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