What is Potential Energy? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of Potential Energy
  • 1:03 Storing Energy
  • 2:17 Types of Potential Energy
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Elizabeth Basa
Expert Contributor
Matthew Bergstresser

Matthew has a Master of Arts degree in Physics Education. He has taught high school chemistry and physics for 14 years.

All great educators and parents inspire us to reach our potential - to discover parts of us yet to be realized. Potential energy in science is not much different. This lesson explores the concept of energy that has the potential to do work.

Definition of Potential Energy

Why would a stretched rubber band aimed at your face, a rock being held over your head, and a live electrical wire on your street make you nervous? All of the objects are in positions that can potentially hurt you. In other words, they have energy ready to be released, and when it is, these objects will do work.

Now, imagine a rubber band just sitting in the palm of your hand, a rock on the ground and a wire without any power. These same objects no longer pose a threat. Why? Because they are in different positions and no longer have that energy that has the potential to be released.

In science, energy is often described as the ability to do work. So, potential energy is energy that can do work at some point in the future. The first scenario described items that all had potential energy. While this potential energy is waiting to do this future work, it must be stored somehow. Due to this, potential energy is also often referred to as stored energy.

Storing Energy

The next question that comes to mind might be, 'Where is energy stored?' But considering that energy is an elusive, unseen thing, the more appropriate question may be, 'How is energy stored?' The general answer is expressed in terms of position. How an object is positioned or arranged in relation to other things can result in the storage of potential energy. Let's take a look at another example - this huge boulder:

Boulder with Potential Energy

If those smaller rocks were not there, what would gravity do to the boulder? Of course, the boulder would crash down so hard you definitely would not want to be standing underneath. Just moving a short distance, the rock does a large amount of work once its potential energy is released.

If this rock was on a hill and started to move, gravity would pull it all the way down to the bottom as long as nothing blocked its path. Clearly, a rock that size storming down a hill would release a ton of energy and do a lot of work. Imagine all of the things it could crush. This energy was created because it was located up on top of the hill. Once the rock is at the bottom of the hill sitting on flat ground, it no longer has any potential energy. The rock does not have the option to fall down anymore; it is not elevated against gravity.

Types of Potential Energy

So, what are the different kinds of potential energy? Any object located at a position above the ground, where it has the possibility of coming down to the surface, has potential energy. In particular, this is called gravitational potential energy because gravity is the reason elevated objects have potential energy. The higher an object is off the ground the greater the downward pull of gravity is, and the more potential energy it has. This is why people have no problem jumping off the bottom step but prefer not to jump down a whole flight of stairs. Just that far off the ground, we simply have too much potential energy.

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Additional Activities

Potential Energy

Potential energy is what we call stored energy. There are several types of potential energy. Among these are gravitational, elastic, electric, and chemical. Gravitational potential energy is the energy of position. Elastic potential energy is the energy stored in a stretched or compressed elastic band or spring. Electric potential energy is the energy stored in an electric field. Chemical potential energy is the energy stored in chemical bonds.

When solving problems involving potential energy, we need to first identify the type or types of potential energy in the scenario. Let's do a practice problem and do just that.

A proton is located 1 x 10-5 meters from the positively charged terminal in a battery. What type of potential energy is involved in this scenario? The answer is the electric potential energy. There is an electric field set up between the battery terminals. The proton does not want to be near the positive battery terminal because like charges repel. Since the positive charge is near the positive terminal of the battery, there is electric potential energy stored in this scenario.

Now it's your turn to identify some potential energy scenarios.


1. A boulder is located at the top of a high mountain cliff. An earthquake nudged it over the cliff, and it fell 200 feet. What type of potential energy is stored in the rock on the cliff?

2. A gate to a person's back yard shuts automatically due to a spring attached to the gate and a stationary wall.

3. Hydrogen gas and oxygen gas react to form water.


1. Gravitational potential energy.

2. Elastic potential energy.

3. Chemical potential energy is stored in the bonds of the reactants and bonds of the product of the reaction.

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