Work and Energy

In physics, the terms work and energy have very specific meanings that are different from what we refer to in our daily lives.

Work and Energy Work and Energy

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Table of contents

    Work is the measurement of the energy transfer that takes place when an object is moved along with at least a part of the applied force.

    In other words, work done is the action on an object, which, in turn, moves an object in a certain direction. Pushing a box across a floor is an example of work done.

    Work and Energy, Visual representation of work, StudySmarterFigure 1. A force applied that moves an object in the direction of the force applied creates work.

    How can we calculate the work done and what are its units?

    We can calculate work done on an object using the following formula:

    \[W = F \cdot d\]

    Here:

    • W = work done.
    • F = force applied.
    • d = distance covered in the direction of the force applied.

    Work has the SI unit of Joules (Nm). According to the formula, work can only be done if the object on which the force is applied moves in the same direction as the force. If you apply force on an object and there is no displacement, you have done no work regardless of how tired you feel.

    What if the force applied does not move an object in the direction of the force?

    While calculating the work done on an object, we must also bear in mind that only the component of the force that is parallel to the direction of the movement is taken into consideration. If you apply a force on a box, and your arms are parallel to the floor, all your efforts will contribute to the work done on the box.

    Work and Energy, Force resulting in work, StudySmarterFigure 2. Only the component of the force that is parallel to the movement of the object is the force that results in work. Source: Oğulcan Tezcan, StudySmarter.

    If, on the other hand, your arms are not parallel to the floor and you are pushing the box at an angle, only the component of that force that is parallel to the movement will be taken into account while calculating the work done. The component of the applied force that is perpendicular to the direction of the motion is discarded.

    In situations where the force applied is at an angle to the displacement and we have to calculate the horizontal distance covered, we use the following formula:

    \[W = F \cdot d \cos(\theta)\]

    Here, θ is the angle from the horizontal plane.

    In figure 2, if the angle theta is zero, the applied force is completely parallel to the direction of motion, and the equation becomes W = F⋅d. If theta is equal to 90° and the direction of the force is downwards, the equation results in zero and the box will not move, as the applied force will be pushing the box into the ground.

    If the vertical force happens to be in the upward direction, the box will move in the upward direction (if the force is great enough), and work will be done.

    Can there be both positive and negative work?

    You might be thinking that work has a force and makes an object move in a certain direction, but this is not the case. Work is a dot product of two vector quantities: force and displacement. And as the dot product of two vector quantities is a scalar quantity, work also becomes a scalar quantity. It has a magnitude but no specific direction.

    Just like temperature is a scalar quantity but can have negative values, work can also be positive or negative.

    Work is positive if the force applied to an object is in the same direction as the displacement. Work is negative if the applied force is in the opposite direction to the movement of the object.

    Energy and its units

    Previously, we defined the work done as the energy transferred to an object, which indicates that the energy element plays an important role in determining the total work done.

    Energy is the capacity of a body to perform work.

    Energy, which determines how much work a body can do, is measured in Joules (Nm). Energy is merely a property of a system that can be transferred to another system.

    Concept of Work and Energy

    This theorem states that whenever work is done on an object, there will be a change in the kinetic energy of that object. Kinetic energy happens to be the energy of motion. But how can we prove this theorem?

    First of all, we are going to make a few assumptions, even though these assumptions are not required to derive the formula to prove the work-energy theorem. They just make the calculations much simpler.

    Suppose you have forces acting on an object whose direction is the same as the displacement. Theta will be zero in this case, which reduces the equation to:

    \[W = F \cdot d\]

    Work and Energy, Net force acting on an object, StudySmarterFigure 3. Net force in the direction of the movement.

    As we are dealing with the Wnet total work on an object, we can rewrite the above formula as:

    \[W_{net} = F_{net} \cdot d\]

    Fnet is the total net force applied to an object. We also know that the net force is equal to the product of mass and acceleration. Hence:

    \[F_{net} = ma\]

    \[W_{net} = m \cdot a \cdot d\]

    The above equation has acceleration, which is why we need to rewrite it in the velocity v form. Recall from the kinematics equations that:

    \[v^2_f = v^2_i + 2 \cdot a \cdot d\]

    \[a \cdot d = \frac{v^2_f - v^2_i}{2}\]

    Vf in the above equation is the final velocity, Vi is the initial velocity, a is the acceleration, and d is the displacement. To use the above kinematic equation, we need to assume the acceleration to be constant. In that case, the Fnet applied is constant as well.

    Putting the values into the Wnet equation yields:

    \[W_{net} = m \cdot a \cdot d\]

    \[a \cdot d = \frac{v^2_f - v^2_i}{2}\]

    \[W_{net} = m\Big(\frac{v^2_f - v_i^2}{2} \Big) = \frac{1}{2} mv_f^2 - \frac{1}{2} mv_i^2\]

    This quantity of \(\frac{1}{2} \cdot m \cdot v^2\) is what we call kinetic energy. Finally, we can write the work-energy theorem as:

    \[W_{net} = \Delta KE\]

    Work and Energy - Key takeaways

    • Work done can be calculated as the dot product of force and displacement vectors.
    • Work done on an object depends only on the component of the force that is parallel to the direction of the movement.
    • Work can be positive or negative.
    • Energy is the capacity of an object to perform work.
    • The work-energy theorem states that whenever work is done on an object, there is a change in the kinetic energy of that object.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Work and Energy

    Are work, power, and energy scalar or vector quantities?

    They are scalar quantities.

    Are energy and work the same thing, explain?

    Energy is the ability of a body to do work, while work is the amount of energy transferred to a body in the same direction of the movement.

    What are the units of work and energy?

    The units of work and energy are Joules.

    What is the relationship between work, energy, and power?

    Whenever work is done on an object, there is a change in the kinetic energy of that object. In relation, power is the rate of doing work or work done per unit time. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Pick the correct definition of energy from the following:

    Pick the correct definition of work from the following:

    Define kinetic energy.

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