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What is Thermal Energy? - Definition & Examples

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  1. 0:05 What is Thermal Energy?
  2. 1:15 Application of Thermal Energy
  3. 3:30 Geothermal Energy
  4. 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

John Simmons

John has taught college science courses face-to-face and online since 1994 and has a doctorate in physiology.

This lesson defines and identifies examples of thermal energy everywhere from your kitchen to the Earth's core. We'll discuss geothermal energy, a renewable energy source, as well.

What is Thermal Energy?

Have you ever wondered what makes something hot? The answer may be more simple than you think. The temperature of an object increases when the molecules that make up that object move faster.

Thermal energy is energy possessed by an object or system due to the movement of particles within the object or the system. Thermal energy is one of various types of energy, where 'energy' can be defined as 'the ability to do work.' Work is the movement of an object due to an applied force. A system is simply a collection of objects within some boundary. Therefore, thermal energy can be described as the ability of something to do work due to the movement of its particles.

Because thermal energy is due to the movement of particles, it is a type of kinetic energy, which is the energy due to motion. Thermal energy results in something having an internal temperature, and that temperature can be measured - for example, in degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit on a thermometer. The faster the particles move within an object or system, the higher the temperature that is recorded.

Application of Thermal Energy

Let's take a look at a simple example of thermal energy. A heated element on a stove contains thermal energy, and the more you turn up the stove, the more internal energy the stove contains. At the very basic level, this thermal energy is the movement of the molecules that make up the metal of the stove's element. I know you can't see the molecules moving, but they are. The faster the molecules, the more internal thermal energy they contain.

Now let's place a pot of water on top of the heated element. What happens? The stove works, right? Well, not as we would typically think of it. Here, 'work' is referring to 'the movement of something when a force is applied.' Specifically, the thermal energy of the stove causes the particles of the pot and eventually the water to move faster. The internal energy of the heated element is transferred to the pot and ultimately the water within the pot. This transfer of thermal energy from the stove to the pot and to the water is referred to as heat. It is very important to keep these terms straight. In this context, heat is the term we use to refer to specifically the transfer of thermal energy from one object or a system to another, transfer being the key. The thermal energy is the energy possessed within the object or within the system due to movement of particles. They're different - heat and thermal energy.

You can feel the heat if you hold your hand above the stove. The heat, in turn, speeds up the molecules within the pot and the water. If you place a thermometer in the water, as the water heats up you can watch the temperature rise. Again, an increase in internal energy will result in an increase in temperature.

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy originates in the core of the Earth and radiates to the surface.
Geothermal Energy Diagram

Geothermal energy is another example of thermal energy. The word 'geothermal' comes from the Greek words 'geo,' which means 'Earth,' and 'therm, 'which means 'heat.' Therefore, geothermal energy is the thermal energy contained within our Earth. Most of this geothermal energy comes from the rapidly moving particles within the Earth's core, where temperatures can reach 5,000 degrees Celsius (9,000 degrees Fahrenheit). The thermal energy in the center of the Earth is transferred to the surface of the Earth. This heat transfer causes the surface of the Earth to have a relatively constant temperature whether it's winter or summer. We take advantage of this by using heat pumps. These heat pumps use the geothermal energy to warm the air in the wintertime and then cool the air in the summer. On a much larger scale, we use geothermal energy to generate electricity. Geothermal energy is a renewable energy source as it is energy derived from a natural resource and it can be replenished. Other examples of renewable energy sources include wind and water.

Lesson Summary

Let's summarize. Thermal energy is energy possessed by an object or a system due to the movement of particles within that object or system. Energy is simply the ability to do work, and work is accomplished when a force moves an object. In this context, a system is a collection of objects within a boundary, like a pot of water. Thermal energy is an example of kinetic energy, as it is due to the motion of particles, with motion being the key. Thermal energy results in an object or a system having a temperature that can be measured. Thermal energy can be transferred from one object or system to another in the form of heat. Geothermal energy is thermal energy within the Earth due to the movement of the Earth's particles. Most of this geothermal energy is contained within the core of the Earth. This geothermal energy is renewable energy as it is energy derived from a natural resource and it can be replenished.

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