18 Do All Interactions Have a Potential Energy?



  • Define conservative force.
  • List a force which does not have a potential energy.

Potential Energy and Conservative Forces

Work is done by a force, and some forces, such as weight, have special characteristics. A conservative force is one, like the gravitational force, for which work done by or against it depends only on the starting and ending points of a motion and not on the path taken. We can define a potential energy for any conservative force, just as we did for the gravitational force. For example, when you wind up a toy, an egg timer, or an old-fashioned watch, you do work against its spring and store energy in it. (We treat these springs as ideal, in that we assume there is no friction and no production of thermal energy.) This stored energy is recoverable as work, and it is useful to think of it as potential energy contained in the spring. Indeed, the reason that the spring has this characteristic is that its force is conservative. That is, a conservative force results in stored or potential energy. Gravitational potential energy is one example, as is the energy stored in a spring. We will also see how conservative forces are related to the conservation of energy.


Potential energy is the energy a system has due to position, shape, or configuration. It is stored energy that is completely recoverable.

A conservative force is one for which work done by or against it depends only on the starting and ending points of a motion and not on the path taken.

We can define a potential energy\boldsymbol{(\textbf{PE})}for any conservative force. The work done against a conservative force to reach a final configuration depends on the configuration, not the path followed, and is the potential energy added.

Nonconservative Forces and Friction

Forces are either conservative or nonconservative. Conservative forces were discussed above. A nonconservative force is one for which work depends on the path taken. Friction is a good example of a nonconservative force. As illustrated in the figure below, work done against friction depends on the length of the path between the starting and ending points. Because of this dependence on path, there is no potential energy associated with nonconservative forces. An important characteristic is that the work done by a nonconservative force adds or removes mechanical energy from a system. Friction, for example, creates thermal energy that dissipates, removing energy from the system. Furthermore, even if the thermal energy is retained or captured, it cannot be fully converted back to work, so it is lost or not recoverable in that sense as well.

(a) A drawing of a happy face is erased diagonally from a point A to a point B. (b) A drawing of a happy face is erased in the shape of the letter u, but starting from the same point A and ending at the same point B.
Figure 1. The amount of the happy face erased depends on the path taken by the eraser between points A and B, as does the work done against friction. Less work is done and less of the face is erased for the path in (a) than for the path in (b). The force here is friction, and most of the work goes into thermal energy that subsequently leaves the system (the happy face plus the eraser). The energy expended cannot be fully recovered.


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