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Physics LibreTexts

8.5: Sources of Energy

Skills to Develop

  • Describe energy transformations and conversions in general terms
  • Explain what it means for an energy source to be renewable or nonrenewable

In this section, we have studied energy. We learned that energy can take different forms and can be transferred from one form to another. You will find that energy is discussed in many everyday, as well as scientific, contexts, because it is involved in all physical processes. It will also become apparent that many situations are best understood, or most easily conceptualized, by considering energy. So far, no experimental results have contradicted the conservation of energy. In fact, whenever measurements have appeared to conflict with energy conservation, new forms of energy have been discovered or recognized in accordance with this principle.

What are some other forms of energy? Many of these are covered in later chapters (also see Figure 8.14), but let’s detail a few here:

  • Atoms and molecules inside all objects are in random motion. The internal kinetic energy from these random motions is called thermal energy, because it is related to the temperature of the object. Note that thermal energy can also be transferred from one place to another, not transformed or converted, by the familiar processes of conduction, convection, and radiation. In this case, the energy is known as heat energy.
  • Electrical energy is a common form that is converted to many other forms and does work in a wide range of practical situations.
  • Fuels, such as gasoline and food, have chemical energy, which is potential energy arising from their molecular structure. Chemical energy can be converted into thermal energy by reactions like oxidation. Chemical reactions can also produce electrical energy, such as in batteries. Electrical energy can, in turn, produce thermal energy and light, such as in an electric heater or a light bulb.
  • Light is just one kind of electromagnetic radiation, or radiant energy, which also includes radio, infrared, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays. All bodies with thermal energy can radiate energy in electromagnetic waves.
  • Nuclear energy comes from reactions and processes that convert measurable amounts of mass into energy. Nuclear energy is transformed into radiant energy in the Sun, into thermal energy in the boilers of nuclear power plants, and then into electrical energy in the generators of power plants. These and all other forms of energy can be transformed into one another and, to a certain degree, can be converted into mechanical work.

Figure 8.14 - Energy that we use in society takes many forms, which be converted from one into another depending on the process involved. We will study many of these forms of energy in later chapters in this text. (credit “sun”: EIT SOHO Consortium, ESA, NASA; credit “solar panels”: “kjkolb”/Wikimedia Commons; credit “gas burner”: Steven Depolo)

The transformation of energy from one form into another happens all the time. The chemical energy in food is converted into thermal energy through metabolism; light energy is converted into chemical energy through photosynthesis. Another example of energy conversion occurs in a solar cell. Sunlight impinging on a solar cell produces electricity, which can be used to run electric motors or heat water. In an example encompassing many steps, the chemical energy contained in coal is converted into thermal energy as it burns in a furnace, to transform water into steam, in a boiler. Some of the thermal energy in the steam is then converted into mechanical energy as it expands and spins a turbine, which is connected to a generator to produce electrical energy. In these examples, not all of the initial energy is converted into the forms mentioned, because some energy is always transferred to the environment.

Energy is an important element at all levels of society. We live in a very interdependent world, and access to adequate and reliable energy resources is crucial for economic growth and for maintaining the quality of our lives. The principal energy resources used in the world are shown in Figure 8.15. The figure distinguishes between two major types of energy sources: renewable and non-renewable, and further divides each type into a few more specific kinds. Renewable sources are energy sources that are replenished through naturally occurring, ongoing processes, on a time scale that is much shorter than the anticipated lifetime of the civilization using the source. Non-renewable sources are depleted once some of the energy they contain is extracted and converted into other kinds of energy. The natural processes by which non-renewable sources are formed typically take place over geological time scales.

Figure 8.15 - World energy consumption by source; the percentage of renewables is increasing, accounting for 19% in 2012.

Our most important non-renewable energy sources are fossil fuels, such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas. These account for about 81% of the world’s energy consumption, as shown in the figure. Burning fossil fuels creates chemical reactions that transform potential energy, in the molecular structures of the reactants, into thermal energy and products. This thermal energy can be used to heat buildings or to operate steam-driven machinery. Internal combustion and jet engines convert some of the energy of rapidly expanding gases, released from burning gasoline, into mechanical work. Electrical power generation is mostly derived from transferring energy in expanding steam, via turbines, into mechanical work, which rotates coils of wire in magnetic fields to generate electricity. Nuclear energy is the other non-renewable source shown in Figure 8.15 and supplies about 3% of the world’s consumption. Nuclear reactions release energy by transforming potential energy, in the structure of nuclei, into thermal energy, analogous to energy release in chemical reactions. The thermal energy obtained from nuclear reactions can be transferred and converted into other forms in the same ways that energy from fossil fuels are used.

An unfortunate byproduct of relying on energy produced from the combustion of fossil fuels is the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and its contribution to global warming. Nuclear energy poses environmental problems as well, including the safety and disposal of nuclear waste. Besides these important consequences, reserves of non-renewable sources of energy are limited and, given the rapidly growing rate of world energy consumption, may not last for more than a few hundred years. Considerable effort is going on to develop and expand the use of renewable sources of energy, involving a significant percentage of the world’s physicists and engineers.

Four of the renewable energy sources listed in Figure 8.15—those using material from plants as fuel (biomass heat, ethanol, biodiesel, and biomass electricity)—involve the same types of energy transformations and conversions as just discussed for fossil and nuclear fuels. The other major types of renewable energy sources are hydropower, wind power, geothermal power, and solar power.

Hydropower is produced by converting the gravitational potential energy of falling or flowing water into kinetic energy and then into work to run electric generators or machinery. Converting the mechanical energy in ocean surface waves and tides is in development. Wind power also converts kinetic energy into work, which can be used directly to generate electricity, operate mills, and propel sailboats.

The interior of Earth has a great deal of thermal energy, part of which is left over from its original formation (gravitational potential energy converted into thermal energy) and part of which is released from radioactive minerals (a form of natural nuclear energy). It will take a very long time for this geothermal energy to escape into space, so people generally regard it as a renewable source, when actually, it’s just inexhaustible on human time scales.

The source of solar power is energy carried by the electromagnetic waves radiated by the Sun. Most of this energy is carried by visible light and infrared (heat) radiation. When suitable materials absorb electromagnetic waves, radiant energy is converted into thermal energy, which can be used to heat water, or when concentrated, to make steam and generate electricity (Figure 8.16). However, in another important physical process, known as the photoelectric effect, energetic radiation impinging on certain materials is directly converted into electricity. Materials that do this are called photovoltaics (PV in Figure 8.15). Some solar power systems use lenses or mirrors to concentrate the Sun’s rays, before converting their energy through photovoltaics, and these are qualified as CSP in Figure 8.15.

Figure 8.16 - Solar cell arrays found in a sunny area converting the solar energy into stored electrical energy. (credit: Sarah Swenty)

As we finish this chapter on energy and work, it is relevant to draw some distinctions between two sometimes misunderstood terms in the area of energy use. As we mentioned earlier, the “law of conservation of energy” is a very useful principle in analyzing physical processes. It cannot be proven from basic principles but is a very good bookkeeping device, and no exceptions have ever been found. It states that the total amount of energy in an isolated system always remains constant. Related to this principle, but remarkably different from it, is the important philosophy of energy conservation. This concept has to do with seeking to decrease the amount of energy used by an individual or group through reducing activities (e.g., turning down thermostats, diving fewer kilometers) and/or increasing conversion efficiencies in the performance of a particular task, such as developing and using more efficient room heaters, cars that have greater miles-per-gallon ratings, energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights, etc.

Since energy in an isolated system is not destroyed, created, or generated, you might wonder why we need to be concerned about our energy resources, since energy is a conserved quantity. The problem is that the final result of most energy transformations is waste heat, that is, work that has been “degraded” in the energy transformation. We will discuss this idea in more detail in the chapters on thermodynamics.

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