PS3.D: Energy in Chemical Processes and Everyday Life
How do food and fuel provide energy? If energy is conserved, why do people say it is produced or used?
- Background Information for PS3.D
- K-12 Progression and Grade Band End Points for PS3.D
- Performance Expectations Associated with PS3.D
- Additional Resources for PS3.D
In ordinary language, people speak of “producing” or “using” energy. This refers to the fact that energy in concentrated form is useful for generating electricity, moving or heating objects, and producing light, whereas diffuse energy in the environment is not readily captured for practical use. Therefore, to produce energy typically means to convert some stored energy into a desired form—for example, the stored energy of water behind a dam is released as the water flows downhill and drives a turbine generator to produce electricity, which is then delivered to users through distribution systems. Food, fuel, and batteries are especially convenient energy resources because they can be moved from place to place to provide processes that release energy where needed. A system does not destroy energy when carrying out any process. However, the process cannot occur without energy being available. The energy is also not destroyed by the end of the process. Most often some or all of it has been transferred to heat the surrounding environment; in the same sense that paper is not destroyed when it is written on, it still exists but is not readily available for further use.
Naturally occurring food and fuel contain complex carbon-based molecules, chiefly derived from plant matter that has been formed by photosynthesis. The chemical reaction of these molecules with oxygen releases energy; such reactions provide energy for most animal life and for residential, commercial, and industrial activities.
Electric power generation is based on fossil fuels (i.e., coal, oil, and natural gas), nuclear fission, or renewable resources (e.g., solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, and hydro power). Transportation today chiefly depends on fossil fuels, but the use of electric and alternative fuel (e.g., hydrogen, biofuel) vehicles is increasing. All forms of electricity generation and transportation fuels have associated economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits, both short and long term. Technological advances and regulatory decisions can change the balance of those costs and benefits.
Although energy cannot be destroyed, it can be converted to less useful forms. In designing a system for energy storage, for energy distribution, or to perform some practical task (e.g., to power an airplane), it is important to design for maximum efficiency—thereby ensuring that the largest possible fraction of the energy is used for the desired purpose rather than being transferred out of the system in unwanted ways (e.g., through friction, which eventually results in heat energy transfer to the surrounding environment). Improving efficiency reduces costs, waste materials, and many unintended environmental impacts.
Grade Band Endpoints for PS3.D
By the end of grade 2. When two objects rub against each other, this interaction is called friction. Friction between two surfaces can warm of both of them (e.g., rubbing hands together). There are ways to reduce the friction between two objects.
By the end of grade 5. The expression “produce energy” typically refers to the conversion of stored energy into a desired form for practical use—for example, the stored energy of water behind a dam is released so that it flows downhill
and drives a turbine generator to produce electricity. Food and fuel also release energy when they are digested or burned. When machines or animals “use” energy (e.g., to move around), most often the energy is transferred to heat the surrounding environment.
The energy released by burning fuel or digesting food was once energy from the sun that was captured by plants in the chemical process that forms plant matter (from air and water). (Boundary: The fact that plants capture energy from sunlight is introduced at this grade level, but details of photosynthesis are not.)
It is important to be able to concentrate energy so that it is available for use where and when it is needed. For example, batteries are physically transportable energy storage devices, whereas electricity generated by power plants is transferred from place to place through distribution systems.
By the end of grade 8. The chemical reaction by which plants produce complex food molecules (sugars) requires an energy input (i.e., from sunlight) to occur. In this reaction, carbon dioxide and water combine to form carbon-based organic molecules and release oxygen. (Boundary: Further details of the photosynthesis process are not taught at this grade level.)
Both the burning of fuel and cellular digestion in plants and animals involve chemical reactions with oxygen that release stored energy. In these processes, complex molecules containing carbon react with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and other materials.
Machines can be made more efficient, that is, require less fuel input to perform a given task, by reducing friction between their moving parts and through aerodynamic design. Friction increases energy transfer to the surrounding environment by heating the affected materials.
By the end of grade 12. Nuclear fusion processes in the center of the sun release the energy that ultimately reaches Earth as radiation. The main way in which that solar energy is captured and stored on Earth is through the complex chemical process known as photosynthesis. Solar cells are human-made devices that likewise capture the sun’s energy and produce electrical energy.
A variety of multistage physical and chemical processes in living organisms, particularly within their cells, account for the transport and transfer (release or uptake) of energy needed for life functions.
All forms of electricity generation and transportation fuels have associated economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits, both short and long term.
Although energy cannot be destroyed, it can be converted to less useful forms—for example, to thermal energy in the surrounding environment. Machines are judged as efficient or inefficient based on the amount of energy input needed to perform a particular useful task. Inefficient machines are those that produce more waste heat while performing a task and thus require more energy input. It is therefore important to design for high efficiency so as to reduce costs, waste materials, and many environmental impacts.