Relation Between Potential Energy, Potential and Force
Potential energy is closely linked with forces. If the work done moving along a path which starts and ends in the same location is zero, then the force is said to be conservative and it is possible to define a numerical value of potential associated with every point in space. A force field can be re-obtained by taking the negative of the vector gradient of the potential field.
For example, gravity is a conservative force. The associated potential is the gravitational potential, often denoted by or, corresponding to the energy per unit mass as a function of position. The gravitational potential energy of two particles of mass M and m separated by a distance r is
where is the reduced mass.
The work done against gravity by moving an infinitesimal mass from point A with to point B with is and the work done going back the other way is so that the total work done in moving from A to B and returning to A is
If the potential is redefined at A to be and the potential at B to be, where is a constant (i.e. can be any number, positive or negative, but it must be the same at A as it is at B) then the work done going from A to B is
In practical terms, this means that one can set the zero of and anywhere one likes. One may set it to be zero at the surface of the Earth, or may find it more convenient to set zero at infinity (as in the expressions given earlier in this section).
A thing to note about conservative forces is that the work done going from A to B does not depend on the route taken. If it did then it would be pointless to define a potential at each point in space. An example of a non-conservative force is friction. With friction, the route taken does affect the amount of work done, and it makes little sense to define a potential associated with friction.
All the examples above are actually force field stored energy (sometimes in disguise). For example in elastic potential energy, stretching an elastic material forces the atoms very slightly further apart. The equilibrium between electromagnetic forces and Pauli repulsion of electrons (they are fermions obeying Fermi statistics) is slightly violated resulting in a small returning force. Scientists rarely discuss forces on an atomic scale. Often interactions are described in terms of energy rather than force. One may think of potential energy as being derived from force or think of force as being derived from potential energy (though the latter approach requires a definition of energy that is independent from force which does not currently exist).
A conservative force can be expressed in the language of differential geometry as a closed form. As Euclidean space is contractible, its de Rham cohomology vanishes, so every closed form is also an exact form, and can be expressed as the gradient of a scalar field. This gives a mathematical justification of the fact that all conservative forces are gradients of a potential field.
Read more about this topic: Potential Energy
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