What is Energy Conservation? - Definition, Process & Examples

What is Energy Conservation? - Definition, Process & Examples
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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.

This lesson will explain what the conservation of energy principle is and why it matters, using some real-life examples of how it works in our day-to-day lives. A short quiz will follow.

What Is Energy and Energy Conservation?

Energy is all around us. It's flowing in our bodies, flying through the air, and beating down on us from the sun. It's everywhere. But what exactly 'is' energy? And how is it 'conserved?'

Explaining what energy is can be difficult. The physics definition says that energy is a currency that allows you to do work. Work is done when you apply a force over a distance, or transfer energy from one place to another. So, all that really says is that energy allows you to transfer it, and to do that, you apply a force.

Perhaps it's easier to talk about what energy allows us to do. Energy in most human situations originates from the sun. Energy from the sun allows the plants to grow, and animals eat those plants to get energy for themselves. We humans eat both plants and animals to get our energy, but either way the energy originates in the sun. But even the sun isn't the start of the story, because the sun gets its energy from the nuclear energy stored inside hydrogen atoms, and those hydrogen atoms originate back to the Big Bang that started the universe.

The story of energy never ends, because energy can never be used up - it is said to be 'conserved.' Conservation of energy is the principle that energy is not created or destroyed; it only moves from one place to another - from one type of energy to another.

The food you burn in your body to give yourself energy gets transferred into other objects and into the rotation of the Earth itself when you move around, lift things, or ride a bicycle. It never disappears.

An Example of Energy Conservation

Let's hear an example of energy conservation. Let's say you grab a bite to each for lunch, and then drive down the hill to the fair because you want to ride the reverse bungee. It's such a simple story, yet it has all kinds of energy transfers buried within it.

You ate food that started out as nuclear energy in the center of the Sun, which became light energy that the Sun shone out towards the Earth, where plants changed it into stored chemical energy, making the vegetables that you ate for lunch.

Your body then stored that chemical energy in the form of sugar inside your body. Then, it slowly transferred the energy to your muscles, where it changed into a mixture of mechanical energy as you moved your joints, and wasted heat energy. This heat energy is only 'wasted' in the sense that it isn't useful to us, but the energy will continue to move from type to type and is never truly lost.

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