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ZingPath: Mechanical Energy

Gravitational Potential Energy: Seeing the Impact in the Sand

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Gravitational Potential Energy: Seeing the Impact in the Sand

Physical Science

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Learners investigate factors that affect gravitational potential energy.

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Now You Know

After completing this tutorial, you will be able to complete the following:

  • Explain that energy is the capacity to do work.
  • Explain that the gravitational potential energy of an object is directly proportional to its height.
  • Explain that the gravitational potential energy of an object is directly proportional to its mass.

Everything You'll Have Covered

Energy can be described as the ability to move objects or cause change, or the ability to move or change the arrangement of the atoms or molecules that make up matter. The SI unit for energy is the joule (J), named for James Joule, who showed that work can be converted to heat. The joule is the work done by a force of one newton (N) acting through a distance of one meter. Examples of types of energy include chemical, electrical, kinetic, light, magnetic, nuclear, potential, thermal, sound, and wind. Three types of potential energy are elastic, chemical, and gravitational. The total amount of potential and kinetic energy in a system is called mechanical energy.

Look at your bookshelf. A book sitting on a shelf is not moving or producing any sound or light, so it may be surprising to some that the book contains energy. First, all matter contains thermal energy, which is the sum of the kinetic and potential energy of all the particles of the matter. A book is, after all, made up of matter. The book also contains gravitational potential energy, and that will make a big impact on anyone who happens to be standing under the shelf if the book falls. The gravitational potential energy of the book is directly proportional to its height and its mass. The exact relationship is described by the formula Potential Energy = mass x gravity x height. When the book leaves the shelf, as it falls its gravitation potential energy is transformed to kinetic energy. If two books of different masses fall from the same height, the one with greater mass will hurt more. Likewise, if two books of the same mass fall from different heights, the one that falls from a greater height will hurt the head of our innocent bystander more.

Tutorial Details

Approximate Time 20 Minutes
Pre-requisite Concepts acceleration, mass
Course Physical Science
Type of Tutorial Experiment
Key Vocabulary energy, experiment, gravitational force