What is Energy

The Sun

The term energy is very very broad and it has many definitions. Technically, energy is a scalar physical quantity that is associated with the state of one or more objects. Energy is generally defined as the potential to do work or produce heat. Sometimes it is like the “currency” for performing work. You must have energy to accomplish work. To do 1 kilojoule of work, you must expend 1 kilojoule of energy. It must be added, this interpretation can be misleading because energy is not necessarily available to do work.

One of the most wonderful properties of the universe is that energy can be transformed from one type to another and transferred from one object to another. Moreover, when transformed from one type to another and transferred from one object to another, the total amount of energy is always the same. It is one of the elementary properties of the universe.

For example, burning gasoline to power cars is an energy conversion process we rely on. The chemical energy in gasoline is converted to thermal energy, which is then converted to mechanical energy that makes the car move. The mechanical energy has been converted to kinetic energy. When we use the brakes to stop a car, that kinetic energy is converted by friction back to heat, or thermal energy.

Energy Units

Energy is generally defined as the potential to do work or produce heat. This definition causes  the SI unit for energy is the same as the unit of work – the joule (J). Joule is a derived unit of energy and it is named in honor of James Prescott Joule and his experiments on the mechanical equivalent of heat. In more fundamental terms, 1 joule is equal to:

1 J = 1 kg.m2/s2

Since energy is a fundamental physical quantity and it is used in various physical and engineering branches, there are many energy units in physics and engineering.

Internal Energy

In thermodynamics, internal energy (also called the thermal energy) is defined as the energy associated with microscopic forms of energy. It is an extensive quantity, it depends on the size of the system, or on the amount of substance it contains. The SI unit of internal energy is the joule (J). It is the energy contained within the system, excluding the kinetic energy of motion of the system as a whole and the potential energy of the system. Microscopic forms of energy include those due to the rotationvibration, translation, and interactions among the molecules of a substance. None of these forms of energy can be measured or evaluated directly, but techniques have been developed to evaluate the change in the total sum of all these microscopic forms of energy.

In addition, energy is can be stored in the chemical bonds between the atoms that make up the molecules. This energy storage on the atomic level includes energy associated with electron orbital states, nuclear spin, and binding forces in the nucleus.


In thermodynamics, the enthalpy is a measurement of energy in a thermodynamic system. It is the thermodynamic quantity equivalent to the total heat content of a system. The enthalpy is defined to be the sum of the internal energy Eplus the product of the pressure p and volume V. In many thermodynamic analyses the sum of the internal energy U and the product of pressure p and volume V appears, therefore it is convenient to give the combination a name, enthalpy, and a distinct symbol, H.

The enthalpy is the preferred expression of system energy changes in many chemical, biological, and physical measurements at constant pressure. It is so useful that it is tabulated in the steam tables along with specific volume and specific internal energy. It is due to the fact, it simplifies the description of energy transfer. At constant pressure, the enthalpy change equals the energy transferred from the environment through heating (Q = H2 – H1) or work other than expansion work. For a variable-pressure process, the difference in enthalpy is not quite as obvious.

Electrical Energy

Electrical energy is the energy derived from electric potential energy or kinetic energy. A typical nuclear power plant has an electric-generating capacity of 1000 MWe. It produces 1 000 000 000 joules of electrical energy per second. The heat source in the nuclear power plant is a nuclear reactor. As is typical in all conventional thermal power stations the heat is used to generate steam which drives a steam turbine connected to a generator which produces electricity. The turbines are heat engines and are subject to the efficiency limitations imposed by the second law of thermodynamics. In modern nuclear power plants the overall thermodynamic efficiency is about one-third (33%), so 3000 MWth of thermal power from the fission reaction is needed to generate 1000 MWe of electrical power.

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy comes either from spontaneous nuclei conversions or induced nuclei conversions. Among these conversions (nuclear reactions) belong for example nuclear fissionnuclear decay and nuclear fusion. Conversions are associated with mass and energy changes. One of the striking results of Einstein’s theory of relativity is that mass and energy are equivalent and convertible, one into the other. Equivalence of the mass and energy is described by Einstein’s famous formula: