Learning objectives
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
 Define conservative force, potential energy, and mechanical energy.
 Explain the potential energy of a spring in terms of its compression when Hooke’s law applies.
 Use the workenergy theorem to show how having only conservative forces leads to conservation of mechanical energy.
The information presented in this section supports the following AP® learning objectives and science practices:

4.C.1.1 The student is able to calculate the total energy of a system and justify the mathematical routines used in the calculation of component types of energy within the system whose sum is the total energy.
(S.P. 1.4, 2.1, 2.2)

4.C.2.1 The student is able to make predictions about the changes in the mechanical energy of a system when a component of an external force acts parallel or antiparallel to the direction of the displacement of the center of mass.
(S.P. 6.4)

5.B.1.1 The student is able to set up a representation or model showing that a single object can only have kinetic energy and use information about that object to calculate its kinetic energy.
(S.P. 1.4, 2.2)

5.B.1.2 The student is able to translate between a representation of a single object, which can only have kinetic energy, and a system that includes the object, which may have both kinetic and potential energies.
(S.P. 1.5)

5.B.3.1 The student is able to describe and make qualitative and/or quantitative predictions about everyday examples of systems with internal potential energy.
(S.P. 2.2, 6.4, 7.2)

5.B.3.2 The student is able to make quantitative calculations of the internal potential energy of a system from a description or diagram of that system.
(S.P. 1.4, 2.2)

5.B.3.3 The student is able to apply mathematical reasoning to create a description of the internal potential energy of a system from a description or diagram of the objects and interactions in that system.
(S.P. 1.4, 2.2)
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
$(\text{PE})$ 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 oldfashioned 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.