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Professor Quester Answers
General Energy Questions

Dear Professor Quester:
What is the scientific name for the energy in your body like where you get your strength? My teacher said that when you are sleeping the energy is potential. But if you are sleeping your body doesn't stop. It moves because you can have rapid eye movement and your brain keeps working and your digestive system and all, you know, so what's up with that? Wouldn't your body always be kinetic? THANK YOU SOOOO MUCH!!! (Christen, Grade 9, Creek View High School, Dallas, Texas)

The Professor Answers:

Your body uses chemical energy to get your strength, and both you and your teacher are correct. Chemical energy in plants and other food is potential energy. This chemical energy is released as it is "burned" or oxidized inside our bodies during digestion - fueling our bodies. Your body actually doesn't shut down totally when you sleep of course, because the your digestive system is always working, breaking down the food into chemical and heat energy fueling your lungs, brain, heart, etc. What your teacher probably means is that your body is at rest and is considered more potential energy (at rest) than when you are awake, walking around (kinetic).

Good luck and thanks for asking.

Dear Professor Quester:
I am in grade 7 and I would like to know what is radiant energy and mechanical energy (friction, compression, distortion)? My name is Tiffany.

The Professor Answers:
Radiant (meaning light) energy is also known as electromagnetic energy. Light is made up of waves called electromagnetic waves, but they are all invisible to our eyes. Together they form the electromagnetic spectrum. There are many different types of electromagnetic waves...gamma rays (nuclear radiation), ultraviolet waves, X-ray, infra-red radiation (also known as heat radiation - that's how you feel the heat from a fire), radio waves, microwaves, and radar.

These electromagnetic waves have different wavelengths and frequencies. Like ocean waves...some are very low, with just a few waves every minute and just roll onto the shore, while others seem to crash down, one right after another. The distance between one wave peak and the next one is called the wavelength. The number of these peaks that pass by you each second is called the frequency. The light you see (the colored rainbow) is called visible light and is only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Each of these colors has its own wavelength and frequency.

Mechanical energy is work or energy made by machines. Early civilizations used "mechanical" energy to do work like lifting, grinding corn, building and transporting people and goods by harnessing natural forces such as wind and water. Today we use engines, powered by fossil fuels or renewable energy, to do work.

Friction is a force that holds one object back against another. If you try to push a book along a table, at first it will not move. As you push harder, the book eventually begins to slide. But as the book rubs along the table, the force of friction slows it down. Friction always works to stop things moving or slow them down when they are moving.

Compression just means squeezed together into a smaller space. For example, gases can be squashed or compressed into a smaller space. A compressed gas, like air, in a balloon pushes out equally in all directions. The more you compress a gas, the higher the pressure in it becomes.

Distortion can have several meanings depending on what area of energy you are referring to. Basically it means twisting out of a proper relationship of parts... you can distort a sound wave or distort an image from a lens.

Thanks for asking.

Dear Professor Quester:
My fourth graders are doing research projects on the different forms of energy; i.e., chemical, atomic, solar, light, heat, sound, etc.
One student wants to know what the composition of a match head is...that is, what chemicals are used to manufacture them. I know that one of them must be sulphur and there might be some phosphorus to aid lighting it when friction is applied. Can you help us with some more of the ingredients? Thanks kindly. (Mark Silliman, Charles Wright Academy, Tacoma, WA)

The Professor Answers:
Actually, that's a very interesting question. And more interesting is the history of the match, but that is another story.

The friction match (or the stick match), has one end of the stick dipped in a fireproofing agent so that it will not burn readily and the other end is coated with paraffin. The head of the match contains an oxidizing agent such as potassium chlorate, a substance which oxidizes readily (here's your sulfur or rosin), a filler of clay, a binding material such as glue, dye to give it distinctive color and at the very tip, and a small amount of phosphorus trisulfide, which decomposes and burns at a low temperature, igniting the paraffin.

Safety matches are designed so that the head can be ignited only by striking on a specially prepared surface on the match package. The tip of the safety match contains antimony trisulfide and an oxidizing agent (such as potassium chlorate), again held in place with casein or glue. The difference is the striking surface on the package contains powdered glass for friction, red phosphorus and glue. When the match is struck the heat of friction converts the red phosphorus, which ignites and, in turn, ignites the head of the match.

Dear Professor Quester:
Lately I have been studying energy on the Internet. I was wondering if you know any more web sites that include games, activities or valuable information. (Sara Woefel, 7th Grade, West Seneca, New York)

The Professor Answers:
Geez....other energy sites with games. I know of one by San Diego Gas & Electric Company. Click on Energy Arcade. Also try EREN, the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network. Also check our Energy Quest Games Page with a list of other places.

Dear Professor Quester:
I am doing some research on energy. We had a list of web sites to choose from, and I chose yours.
I enjoyed hearing about California's energy facts, but you should expand your margins to include other states. Also, I like your "Watt" games - they helped enforce the educational concept of the site. Your graphics were excellent - colorful and to the point.
What exactly is being done to solve our energy problems? How did you collect the massive amount of information used in your site? Are there any other energy sites you would recommend? (Bradley Tober, 7th Grade, West Seneca, New York)

The Professor Answers:
Thanks for the nice comments about our Web site. We're very proud of it. Let me see if I can answer your questions.

What is being done to solve the energy problems?

People don't think we really have an energy problem. They only get upset when there is a shortage or if their lights go out. We do have a huge problem, however, with America's over reliance on imported oil, and we have a greenhouse gas problem because of using fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.

So, what California and many other states and countries have begun to do is use renewable energy like solar, wind and geothermal. While these energy resources still impact the environment, they do not have as drastic an effect as fossil fuels. Renewable energy comes from a source that is almost infinite, but fossil fuels are finite -- once they are burned they are gone.

How did we get such massive amounts of information on our site?

Well, we began our Energy Quest site about three years ago. We already had some good information on paper, and we put that info on line.

We've also added new games and puzzles and other things over the years. We keep adding things....little bit by little bit.

Are there other sites we'd recommend?

Yes...the National Renewable Energy Labs site has some good stuff.

Also check out CREST, the Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology.

Thanks for writing.

Dear Dr. Q:
What is the law of conservation of energy?

The Professor Answers:
It was the painstaking work of the amateur scientist James Joule (1818-1889) that began to prove that "energy" (as it became to be known) can not be created or destroyed, it can only change form. This idea is known as the Law of Conservation of Energy.

Dear Professor Quester:
Can you give a couple of examples of chemical energy?

The Professor Answers:
Chemical energy, the energy stored in molecules, can be converted (changed) into energy that can heat your home, make steam to turn a turbine to generate electricity or move a car. Some examples are a battery... the chemical energy stored in batteries can be changed to electrical energy when the charge at one electrode of the battery flows to the opposite charge at the other electrode. Did you know you can make a battery from a lemon?

Your body also makes chemical energy when it converts food into energy so that you can walk or run or think.

Over millions of years, the sun's energy (called thermal) has been stored in countless living bodies. After many chemical changes, they turn into coal, oil and gas. When we burn these fuels, we release this energy. Another form of a chemical reaction to produce energy is from a nuclear power plant using radioactive materials.

Thanks for asking!

If YOU have a question about energy, send your question by e-mail to "Professor Quester."
Ask your parents or teacher first before sending an e-mail. Please tell us your grade level, the name of your school and your city. We will usually respond within four or five days.

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Page updated: May 17, 2002
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