It’s worth our energy


Remember that we are on a journey to understand technology because it will help us to make better sense of the world we live in. It is more fun to live in a world that you understand rather than one that you don’t. For example, Rochelle has a local utility company named Rochelle Municipal Utilities that distributes electricity to all of our houses and businesses. How well do you understand this incredibly important system? Chemical energy powers the batteries in our cell phones, and radiant energy is what carries our telephone calls throughout the world. Do you have a basic understanding of the cell phone system? The hot water you use for a comfortable morning shower is thermal energy from your water heater. Do you know how your water heater basically works? Gasoline contains large amounts of chemical energy that our cars need to move us from place to place. Do you understand where that chemical energy comes from? Large wind turbines dot the landscape in Lee County just to our south. Do you know where the energy from the wind comes from? Just as it is important to understand history, math, health, science and languages, it is important to understand technology to know the answers to these questions. There are four types of technology: communication, transportation, production (which is manufacturing and construction) and energy. In this article we’ll start in on energy.

Energy technology is a hot topic these days (please forgive the pun!). It is the often the subject of news stories regarding supplies of oil, natural gas, coal, wind and water power, nuclear power and electricity. It has also become a contentious political issue related to climate change, “green” energy, fossil fuel transportation and use, transportation and consumer vehicles, and other important components of our economy. Many worldwide geopolitical issues revolved around energy issues. All of these discussions involve energy resources that as a civil society we need to make decisions about, and to make good decisions we first need an understanding of energy and energy technology.

Energy is very simply defined as “the ability to do work.” So, anything that possesses that ability is said to “have energy.” For example your body has the ability to do work such as lifting a bag of groceries, therefore your body has energy. This sounds simple enough, but it can become confusing very quickly. Your garage door opener has the ability to open the garage door, but it doesn’t really make much sense to say your garage door opener has energy. It’s the electricity that travels through the opener that has the energy to do the work. So, to understand energy and energy technology we need to understand how energy is transferred from one form to another, and how technology is involved. But to understand that we need an understanding of the six different forms of energy - mechanical, thermal, chemical, nuclear, electrical and radiant.

Mechanical energy is energy related to physical movement of an object. You may remember the term “kinetic energy” from schooling. This is the easiest form to understand because it is very observable. It is the energy of motion. You can easily observe someone lift an object, close a door, or throw a baseball. In the early days of the industrial revolution, the measure of a horsepower was created to quantify mechanical energy. One horsepower was the rate of mechanical work a horse could perform.

Thermal energy is energy related to the heat contained in an object. Everything in our daily lives contains some amount of thermal energy. Thermal energy is easier to understand because our skin can sense thermal energy as “hot” and “cold.” Even cold water contains thermal energy, but hot water contains more. We measure thermal energy in a variety of ways, but a very common measure is degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius.

Chemical energy is energy related to bonds between molecules. It is also invisible and more difficult to understand, but if you have had a chemistry class you have experience with chemical energy first hand. The food we eat contains the chemical energy our bodies depend on, and devices like batteries contain stored chemical energy. Plants are perfect chemical energy devices because they take in chemical energy and store it for later use, similar to the way a battery functions. Chemical energy can be measured in units such as calories or joules.

Nuclear energy is similar to chemical energy but it is related to the bonds between atoms instead of molecules. Nuclear power plants like the one in Byron depend on the energy stored in minerals like uranium found in the earth. Illinois has the most nuclear power plants in the United States. Nuclear energy has enormous potential but also carries enormous risk because of the dangers nuclear energy can pose to humans and other living things. Nuclear energy is measured in electron-volts.

Electrical energy, or electricity, is energy related to ordered movement of electrons resulting from an imbalanced electrical charge. It is more difficult to understand and somewhat mysterious because it is invisible. Electrons are too small to easily see and we must use tools to measure it. We have invented unlimited types of technology to harness it to meet our needs. Electrical energy is fundamental to our modern way of life because it is so versatile and easy to transmit from one place to another but we take it for granted until there’s a power outage and we realize how many devices we depend on need electricity to function. Electrical energy is measured in watts, or watt-hours.

Radiant energy is energy related to movement of electrons due to magnetic force. It is perhaps the most mysterious types of energy because while it can be visible it can also be invisible, and it has the ability to transmit millions of miles and can travel right through solid objects. The light we see from the sun or light bulbs is radiant energy, and the radio waves that carry cell phone signals and radio stations is radiant energy. It is also known as electromagnetic energy because of its relationship to both the forces of electricity and magnetism. Radiant energy is measured in joules.

So, these six forms of energy – mechanical, thermal, chemical, nuclear, electrical and radiant – provide power to our technological world. Collectively they are known as the “foundation of all technology” because energy technology is fundamental to all other technologies. As our world becomes more and more technical it is helpful to know about. Find the energy to stay tuned to this column to learn more about energy technology!

Kurt Wolter has studied and taught technology, including production, transportation, energy, and communication, for over 30 years. He enjoys trying to understand technology and its past, present, and future while also attempting journalism. He can be reached at [email protected]

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