What is Total Mechanical Energy – Definition

The total mechanical energy (defined as the sum of its potential and kinetic energies) of a particle being acted on by only conservative forces is constant. Periodic Table

Definition of Total Mechanical Energy

First the principle of the Conservation of Mechanical Energy was stated:

The total mechanical energy (defined as the sum of its potential and kinetic energies) of a particle being acted on by only conservative forces is constant.

conservartion-of-mechanical-energy-exampleAn isolated system is one in which no external force causes energy changes. If only conservative forces act on an object and U is the potential energy function for the total conservative force, then

Emech = U + K

The potential energy, U, depends on the position of an object subjected to a conservative force.


It is defined as the object’s ability to do work and is increased as the object is moved in the opposite direction of the direction of the force.

The potential energy associated with a system consisting of Earth and a nearby particle is gravitational potential energy.


The kinetic energy, K, depends on the speed of an object and is the ability of a moving object to do work on other objects when it collides with them.

 K = ½ mv2

The above mentioned definition (Emech = U + K) assumes that the system is free of friction and other non-conservative forces. The difference between a conservative and a non-conservative force is that when a conservative force moves an object from one point to another, the work done by the conservative force is independent of the path.

In any real situation, frictional forces and other non-conservative forces are present, but in many cases their effects on the system are so small that the principle of conservation of mechanical energy can be used as a fair approximation. For example the frictional force is a non-conservative force, because it acts to reduce the mechanical energy in a system.

Note that non-conservative forces do not always reduce the mechanical energy. A non-conservative force changes the mechanical energy, there are forces that increase the total mechanical energy, like the force provided by a motor or engine, is also a non-conservative force.

Example of Conservation of Mechanical Energy - Pendulum
conservartion-of-mechanical-energy-pendulumAssume a pendulum (ball of mass m suspended on a string of length L that we have pulled up so that the ball is a height H < L above its lowest point on the arc of its stretched string motion. The pendulum is subjected to the conservative gravitational force where frictional forces like air drag and friction at the pivot are negligible.

We release it from rest. How fast is it going at the bottom?


The pendulum reaches greatest kinetic energy and least potential energy when in the vertical position, because it will have the greatest speed and be nearest the Earth at this point. On the other hand, it will have its least kinetic energy and greatest potential energy at the extreme positions of its swing, because it has zero speed and is farthest from Earth at these points.

If the amplitude is limited to small swings, the period T of a simple pendulum, the time taken for a complete cycle, is:


where L is the length of the pendulum and g is the local acceleration of gravity. For small swings the period of swing is approximately the same for different size swings. That is, the period is independent of amplitude.

The Law of Conservation of Energy – Nonconservative Forces

We now take into account nonconservative forces such as friction, since they are important in real situations. For example, consider again the pendulum, but this time let us include air resistance. The pendulum will slow down, because of friction. In this, and in other natural processes, the mechanical energy (sum of the kinetic and potential energies) does not remain constant but decreases. Because frictional forces reduce the mechanical energy (but not the total energy), they are called nonconservative forces (or dissipative forces). But in the nineteenth-century it was demonstrated the total energy is conserved in any process. In case of pendulum its initial kinetic energy is all transformed into thermal energy.

For each type of force, conservative or nonconservative, it has always been found possible to define a type of energy that corresponds to the work done by such a force. And it has been found experimentally that the total energy E always remains constant. The general law of conservation of energy can be stated as follows:

The total energy E of a system (the sum of its mechanical energy and its internal energies, including thermal energy) can change only by amounts of energy that are transferred to or from the system.

Conservation of Momentum and Energy in Collisions

The use of the conservation laws for momentum and energy is very important also in particle collisions. This is a very powerful rule because it can allow us to determine the results of a collision without knowing the details of the collision. The law of conservation of momentum states that in the collision of two objects such as billiard balls, the total momentum is conserved. The assumption of conservation of momentum as well as the conservation of kinetic energy makes possible the calculation of the final velocities in two-body collisions. At this point we have to distinguish between two types of collisions:

  • Elastic collisions
  • Inelastic collisions

Elastic Collisions

A perfectly elastic collision is defined as one in which there is no net conversion of kinetic energy into other forms (such as heat or noise). For the brief moment during which the two objects are in contact, some (or all) of the energy is stored momentarily in the form of elastic potential energy. But if we compare the total kinetic energy just before the collision with the total kinetic energy just after the collision, and they are found to be the same, then we say that the total kinetic energy is conserved.

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  • Some large-scale interactions like the slingshot type gravitational interactions (also known as a planetary swing-by or a gravity-assist manoeuvre) between satellites and planets are perfectly elastic.
  • Collisions between very hard spheres may be nearly elastic, so it is useful to calculate the limiting case of an elastic collision.
  • Collisions in ideal gases approach perfectly elastic collisions, as do scattering interactions of sub-atomic particles which are deflected by the electromagnetic force.
  • Rutherford scattering is the elastic scattering of charged particles also by the electromagnetic force.
  • A neutron-nucleus scattering reaction may be also elastic, but in this case the neutron is deflected by the strong nuclear force.
Nuclear and Reactor Physics:
  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. Kenneth S. Krane. Introductory Nuclear Physics, 3rd Edition, Wiley, 1987, ISBN: 978-0471805533
  7. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  8. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  9. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.

Advanced Reactor Physics:

  1. K. O. Ott, W. A. Bezella, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Statics, American Nuclear Society, Revised edition (1989), 1989, ISBN: 0-894-48033-2.
  2. K. O. Ott, R. J. Neuhold, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Dynamics, American Nuclear Society, 1985, ISBN: 0-894-48029-4.
  3. D. L. Hetrick, Dynamics of Nuclear Reactors, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48453-2.
  4. E. E. Lewis, W. F. Miller, Computational Methods of Neutron Transport, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48452-4.

See also:

Conservation of Energy

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