Thermal Potential Energy
by Ron Kurtus (revised 19 January 2019)
Thermal potential energy is the potential energy at the atomic and molecular levels that has the potential of becoming thermal kinetic energy or related forms of energy. It is different than the large-scale potential energy of the whole object.
The combination of thermal potential energy and thermal kinetic energy results in the internal energy of an object.
Common types of thermal potential energy are chemical bonds, electrostatic or intermolecular forces, and nuclear bonds.
Questions you may have include:
- How are chemical bonds changed to thermal energy?
- What is intermolecular potential energy?
- What are nuclear bonds?
This lesson will answer those questions. Useful tool: Units Conversion
Chemical potential energy
Many molecules are held together by chemical bonds that can be a thermal potential energy.
Exothermic chemical reactions, such as oxidation, convert the potential energy of the materials into thermal kinetic energy, thus increasing the resulting temperature. For example, when a piece of paper burns, the oxidation process turns the thermal potential energy into thermal kinetic energy.
Nuclear potential energy
Some atoms—especially at the higher end of the Periodic Table—have the potential of decaying into other particles. These radioactive nuclear reactions, give off radiation and high-speed particles that increase the thermal kinetic energy and thus the temperature of a material.
Intermolecular potential energy
Molecules in a liquid or solid are held together by electrostatic or intermolecular forces. Heating the substance—or transferring thermal energy—can overcome those forces, allowing the material to change its phase or state (liquid to gas or solid to liquid). and thus creating thermal kinetic energy. Intermolecular potential energy can also be considered latent potential energy.
Thermal potential energy is potential energy at the atomic and molecular levels, where it has the potential of becoming kinetic energy or related forms of energy. Common types of thermal potential energy are chemical bonds, electrostatic or intermolecular forces, and nuclear bonds.
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