Forms of Energy: Thermal, Radiant, Chemical, Electric & Nuclear Energy

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  • 0:00 Definition of Energy
  • 1:11 Thermal and Radiant Energy
  • 2:52 Chemical Energy
  • 3:32 Electric Energy
  • 3:55 Nuclear Energy
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
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.

After completing this lesson, you will be able to explain what energy is, and describe in detail thermal, radiant, chemical, electric and nuclear energy. A short quiz will follow.

Definition of Energy

Today we're going to talk in depth about a few of the forms of energy. But first of all, what exactly is energy? Well, we don't exactly know. It's this number that we can measure before something happens, and after something happens, and when we do, the total amount of it always stays the same. It just moves from one place to another. If that seems a bit vague, you're not the only one.

The best we can come up with is that energy is the ability of a system to do work. If you stretch a rubber band, you're storing elastic potential energy in the band, and when you let go, it springs back, releasing that energy again. You gave the rubber band the ability to do work, the ability to move, and so it did. Work is a force applied over a distance. So having energy allows you to apply forces and cause something to move a distance.

If you want to move a piano across the room, you better have eaten in the last few days, because you need energy to do it. Let's take a closer look at a few particular forms of energy: thermal, radiant, chemical, electric and nuclear.

Thermal and Radiant Energy

Thermal and radiant energy may have the potential be mixed up, so let's take a look at these together. Radiant energy is energy in the form of electromagnetic waves. There are lots of types of electromagnetic waves: visible light that comes on when we press a light switch, infrared that comes out of a remote control, radio waves that transfer talk radio to our cars, ultraviolet that people absorb when tanning on a beach, and microwaves that cook your food. All of this is radiant energy.

So what about heat energy? Well, there's actually some overlap between the two, so let's go through this carefully. Thermal energy, or heat energy, is energy stored in the random molecular motions of substances. It's related to temperature, because higher temperature objects of the same size contain more heat energy. Just look at the picture on screen of Earth.

The Earth, Like All Objects That Contain Heat, Produces Infrared Radiant Energy
The Earth, Like All Objects That Contain Heat, Produces Infrared Radiant Energy

It's full of thermal energy. Heat energy can transfer from one place to another. It can transfer by conduction when a hotter and colder object are touching. And it can transfer by convection, when air, water or another fluid is circulating.

But heat energy can also be transferred by radiation, by electromagnetic waves. Hot objects all produce electromagnetic waves: to be exact, they produce infrared waves. That's why hot objects feel hot when you're near them, without even touching them. Those infrared waves are transferring heat energy to you. But the infrared waves themselves are radiant energy. The hot object contains heat energy, which comes out of the object as radiant energy, and finally hits you, giving the molecules in your body heat energy.

Chemical Energy

Chemical energy is also energy stored in molecules, but it's stored in actual chemical bonds between atoms. Complex atoms, like proteins for example, have a lot of chemical bonds, and when we eat foods, our bodies can break down those bonds and release energy from them to keep us alive.

But chemical energy isn't just food. Anything where you change the chemical or ionic composition of something and get energy out is chemical energy. When you burn wood on a campfire, that wood contained chemical energy. And when you drive a car, the gas contained chemical energy. Even batteries work by turning chemical energy inside them into electrical energy.

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