The amount of energy transfer needed to change the temperature of a matter sample by a given amount depends on the nature of the matter, the size of the sample, and the environment. Energy is transferred out of hotter regions or objects and into colder ones by the processes of conduction, convection, and radiation.
Energy can also be transferred from place to place by electric currents, which can then be used locally to produce motion, sound, heat, or light. The currents may have been produced to begin with by transforming the energy of motion into electrical energy (e.g., moving water driving a spinning turbine which generates electric currents).
Nuclear energy is the stored potential of the nucleus of an . Most atoms are stable on Earth; they keep their identities as particular elements, like hydrogen, helium, iron, and carbon, as identified in the Periodic Table of Elements. The number of protons in the nucleus tells you which element it is. Nuclear reactions change the fundamental identity of elements by splitting up an atom’s nucleus or fusing together more than one nucleus. These changes are called fission and fusion, respectively.
Substances react chemically in characteristic ways. In a chemical process, the atoms that make up the original substances are regrouped into different molecules, and these new substances have different properties from those of the reactants. The total number of each type of atom is conserved, and thus the mass does not change. Some chemical reactions release energy, others store energy.
Understanding chemical reactions and the properties of elements is essential not only to the physical sciences but also is foundational knowledge for the life sciences and the earth and space sciences. The cycling of matter and associated transfers of energy in systems, of any scale, depend on physical and chemical processes. The reactivity of hydrogen ions gives rise to many biological and geophysical phenomena. The capacity of carbon atoms to form the backbone of extended molecular structures is essential to the chemistry of life. The carbon cycle involves transfers between carbon in the atmosphere—in the form of carbon dioxide—and carbon in living matter or formerly living matter (including fossil fuels). The proportion of oxygen molecules (i.e., oxygen in the form O2) in the atmosphere also changes in this cycle.
The energy released by burning fuel or digesting food was once energy from the sun that was captured by plants in the chemical process that forms plant matter (from air and water). (Boundary: The fact that plants capture energy from sunlight is introduced at this grade level, but details of photosynthesis are not.)
In ordinary language, people speak of “producing” or “using” energy. This refers to the fact that energy in concentrated form is useful for generating electricity, moving or heating objects, and producing light, whereas diffuse energy in the environment is not readily captured for practical use. Therefore, to produce energy typically means to convert some stored energy into a desired form—for example, the stored energy of water behind a dam is released as the water flows downhill and drives a turbine generator to produce electricity, which is then delivered to users through distribution systems. Food, fuel, and batteries are especially convenient energy resources because they can be moved from place to place to provide processes that release energy where needed. A system does not destroy energy when carrying out any process. However, the process cannot occur without energy being available. The energy is also not destroyed by the end of the process. Most often some or all of it has been transferred to heat the surrounding environment; in the same sense that paper is not destroyed when it is written on, it still exists but is not readily available for further use.
Uncontrolled systems always evolve toward more stable states—that is, toward more uniform energy distribution (e.g., water flows downhill, objects hotter than their surrounding environment cool down). Any object or system that can degrade with no added energy is unstable. Eventually it will do so, but if the energy releases throughout the transition are small, the process duration can be very long (e.g., long-lived radioactive isotopes).
Mathematical expressions, which quantify how the stored energy in a system depends on its configuration (e.g., relative positions of charged particles, compression of a spring) and how kinetic energy depends on mass and speed, allow the concept of conservation of energy to be used to predict and describe system behavior. The availability of energy limits what can occur in any system.
Naturally occurring food and fuel contain complex carbon-based molecules, chiefly derived from plant matter that has been formed by photosynthesis. The chemical reaction of these molecules with oxygen releases energy; such reactions provide energy for most animal life and for residential, commercial, and industrial activities.
Light also transfers energy from place to place. For example, energy radiated from the sun is transferred to Earth by light. When this light is absorbed, it warms Earth’s land, air, and water and facilitates plant growth.
Energy is present whenever there are moving objects, sound, light, or heat. When objects collide, energy can be transferred from one object to another, thereby changing their motion. In such collisions, some energy is typically also transferred to the surrounding air; as a result, the air gets heated and sound is produced.