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From: Infinite Potential Mission 2: Waves of Change (pp: 30,31)

What are systems, and what kind of energy transfers and transformations occur within a system? Read this article to find out.

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As you strap yourself into the seat and pull down the shoulder harness, you feel your heart beat a little faster. With the push of a button, the motor comes to life and the roller coaster car starts its slow journey up the first hill.

When you ride a roller coaster, you become part of a system. Like all systems, the roller coaster is composed of a related set of components. Some of the components are physical objects, such as the car and track. Other parts of this system are processes, such as the cars’ movement and the related energy transfers and transformations.

Energy Transfers

In a system, energy transfers take place when energy stays in the same form but is passed between different objects. Think of a row of dominoes. The mechanical energy of the first domino is transferred to the mechanical energy of the next domino and so on. The energy remains mechanical as it is passed on to different objects.

Transformation of Energy in a Roller Coaster

Transformation of Energy in a Roller Coaster

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Energy Transformations

Energy transformations occur in a system when energy changes into different forms. Energy transformations can occur within an object, or between objects. Think about the engine in a car. The chemical energy of the fuel is transformed into the thermal and mechanical energy of the motor and tires.

Dr. Titov studies a system that involves energy transfers and transformations. However, instead of studying amusement park rides or dominoes, he investigates the natural system of energy transfers and transformations that can produce tsunamis.

Tsunamis are a special type of water waves. Waves you see at the beach are usually created when wind transfers energy to the ocean’s surface. However, with tsunamis, the potential energy in tectonic plates or an underwater landslide can be transformed into the kinetic energy of moving tsunami waves.

As a roller coaster car climbs the first hill, kinetic energy transforms into potential energy. Then, as the car races down the first hill, the potential energy in the car is rapidly transformed back into kinetic energy. Roller coaster engineers and designers know that the transfers and transformations are not that simple. As the wheels get hotter and the car makes noise, energy transformations remove energy from the car to other parts of the system. These transformations cause the car to slow down.

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Conservation of Energy

Even though a roller coaster car slows down as it moves along the track, we know that the energy is not being destroyed. In fact, energy is neither created nor destroyed within a system; it is only transferred or transformed. As the roller coaster car races down each hill, gravitational potential energy is transformed into mechanical, sound, and thermal kinetic energy. This law of Conservation of Energy helps engineers design roller coasters, and helps scientists forecast tsunamis and even study the solar system.

Expanding upon the law of Conservation of Energy, Albert Einstein established that matter can be considered a form of energy. We see this in nuclear reactions where some matter is transformed into thermal and electromagnetic energy.