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2-3-3. Potential, Kinetic, Free, and Activation Energy

Learning Objectives

  • Define “energy”
  • Explain the difference between kinetic and potential energy
  • Discuss the concepts of free energy and activation energy
  • Describe endergonic and exergonic reactions

Energy is defined as the ability to do work. As you’ve learned, energy exists in different forms. For example, electrical energy, light energy, and heat energy are all different types of energy. While these are all familiar types of energy that one can see or feel, there is another type of energy that is much less tangible. This energy is associated with something as simple as an object held above the ground. In order to appreciate the way energy flows into and out of biological systems, it is important to understand more about the different types of energy that exist in the physical world.

Types of Energy

When an object is in motion, there is energy associated with that object. In the example of an airplane in flight, there is a great deal of energy associated with the motion of the airplane. This is because moving objects are capable of enacting a change, or doing work. Think of a wrecking ball. Even a slow-moving wrecking ball can do a great deal of damage to other objects. However, a wrecking ball that is not in motion is incapable of performing work. Energy associated with objects in motion is called kinetic energy. A speeding bullet, a walking person, the rapid movement of molecules in the air (which produces heat), and electromagnetic radiation like light all have kinetic energy.

Now what if that same motionless wrecking ball is lifted two stories above a car with a crane? If the suspended wrecking ball is unmoving, is there energy associated with it? The answer is yes. The suspended wrecking ball has energy associated with it that is fundamentally different from the kinetic energy of objects in motion. This form of energy results from the fact that there is the potential for the wrecking ball to do work. If it is released, indeed it would do work. Because this type of energy refers to the potential to do work, it is called potential energy. Objects transfer their energy between kinetic and potential in the following way: As the wrecking ball hangs motionless, it has 0 kinetic and 100 percent potential energy. Once it is released, its kinetic energy begins to increase because it builds speed due to gravity. At the same time, as it nears the ground, it loses potential energy. Somewhere mid-fall it has 50 percent kinetic and 50 percent potential energy. Just before it hits the ground, the ball has nearly lost its potential energy and has near-maximal kinetic energy. Other examples of potential energy include the energy of water held behind a dam (Figure 1), or a person about to skydive out of an airplane.


Figure 1: Water behind a dam has potential energy. Moving water, such as in a waterfall or a rapidly flowing river, has kinetic energy. (credit “dam”: modification of work by "Pascal"/Flickr; credit “waterfall”: modification of work by Frank Gualtieri)

Potential energy is not only associated with the location of matter (such as a child sitting on a tree branch), but also with the structure of matter. A spring on the ground has potential energy if it is compressed; so does a rubber band that is pulled taut. The very existence of living cells relies heavily on structural potential energy. On a chemical level, the bonds that hold the atoms of molecules together have potential energy. Remember that anabolic cellular pathways require energy to synthesize complex molecules from simpler ones, and catabolic pathways release energy when complex molecules are broken down. The fact that energy can be released by the breakdown of certain chemical bonds implies that those bonds have potential energy. In fact, there is potential energy stored within the bonds of all the food molecules we eat, which is eventually harnessed for use. This is because these bonds can release energy when broken. The type of potential energy that exists within chemical bonds, and is released when those bonds are broken, is called chemical energy (Figure 2). Chemical energy is responsible for providing living cells with energy from food. The release of energy is brought about by breaking the molecular bonds within fuel molecules.


Figure 2: The molecules in gasoline (octane, the chemical formula shown) contain chemical energy within the chemical bonds. This energy is transformed into kinetic energy that allows a car to race on a racetrack. (credit “car”: modification of work by Russell Trow)

Visit this site and select “A simple pendulum” on the menu (under “Harmonic Motion”) to see the shifting kinetic (K) and potential energy (U) of a pendulum in motion.

Free Energy

After learning that chemical reactions release energy when energy-storing bonds are broken, an important next question is how is the energy associated with chemical reactions quantified and expressed? How can the energy released from one reaction be compared to that of another reaction? A measurement of free energy is used to quantitate these energy transfers. Free energy is called Gibbs free energy (abbreviated with the letter G) after Josiah Willard Gibbs, the scientist who developed the measurement. Recall that according to the second law of thermodynamics, all energy transfers involve the loss of some amount of energy in an unusable form such as heat, resulting in entropy. Gibbs free energy specifically refers to the energy associated with a chemical reaction that is available after entropy is accounted for. In other words, Gibbs free energy is usable energy, or energy that is available to do work.

Every chemical reaction involves a change in free energy, called delta G (∆G). The change in free energy can be calculated for any system that undergoes such a change, such as a chemical reaction. To calculate ∆G, subtract the amount of energy lost to entropy (denoted as ∆S) from the total energy change of the system. This total energy change in the system is called enthalpy and is denoted as ∆H . The formula for calculating ∆G is as follows, where the symbol T refers to absolute temperature in Kelvin (degrees Celsius + 273):

∆G = ΔH - TΔS

The standard free energy change of a chemical reaction is expressed as an amount of energy per mole of the reaction product (either in kilojoules or kilocalories, kJ/mol or kcal/mol; 1 kJ = 0.239 kcal) under standard pH, temperature, and pressure conditions. Standard pH, temperature, and pressure conditions are generally calculated at pH 7.0 in biological systems, 25 degrees Celsius, and 100 kilopascals (1 atm pressure), respectively. It is important to note that cellular conditions vary considerably from these standard conditions, and so standard calculated ∆G values for biological reactions will be different inside the cell.

Endergonic Reactions and Exergonic Reactions

If energy is released during a chemical reaction, then the resulting value from the above equation will be a negative number. In other words, reactions that release energy have a ∆G < 0. A negative ∆G also means that the products of the reaction have less free energy than the reactants, because they gave off some free energy during the reaction. Reactions that have a negative ∆G and consequently release free energy are called exergonic reactions. Think: exergonic means energy is exiting the system. These reactions are also referred to as spontaneous reactions, because they can occur without the addition of energy into the system. Understanding which chemical reactions are spontaneous and release free energy is extremely useful for biologists, because these reactions can be harnessed to perform work inside the cell. An important distinction must be drawn between the term spontaneous and the idea of a chemical reaction that occurs immediately. Contrary to the everyday use of the term, a spontaneous reaction is not one that suddenly or quickly occurs. The rusting of iron is an example of a spontaneous reaction that occurs slowly, little by little, over time.

If a chemical reaction requires an input of energy rather than releasing energy, then the ∆G for that reaction will be a positive value. In this case, the products have more free energy than the reactants. Thus, the products of these reactions can be thought of as energy-storing molecules. These chemical reactions are called endergonic reactions, and they are non-spontaneous. An endergonic reaction will not take place on its own without the addition of free energy.

Let’s revisit the example of the synthesis and breakdown of the food molecule, glucose. Remember that the building of complex molecules, such as sugars, from simpler ones is an anabolic process and requires energy. Therefore, the chemical reactions involved in anabolic processes are endergonic reactions. On the other hand, the catabolic process of breaking sugar down into simpler molecules releases energy in a series of exergonic reactions. Like the example of rust above, the breakdown of sugar involves spontaneous reactions, but these reactions don’t occur instantaneously. Figure 3 shows some other examples of endergonic and exergonic reactions. Later sections will provide more information about what else is required to make even spontaneous reactions happen more efficiently.

Art Connection

Figure 3: Shown are some examples of endergonic processes (ones that require energy) and exergonic processes (ones that release energy). These include (a) a compost pile decomposing, (b) a chick hatching from a fertilized egg, (c) sand art being destroyed, and (d) a ball rolling down a hill. (credit a: modification of work by Natalie Maynor; credit b: modification of work by USDA; credit c: modification of work by “Athlex”/Flickr; credit d: modification of work by Harry Malsch)

Look at each of the processes shown, and decide if it is endergonic or exergonic. In each case, does enthalpy increase or decrease, and does entropy increase or decrease?

An important concept in the study of metabolism and energy is that of chemical equilibrium. Most chemical reactions are reversible. They can proceed in both directions, releasing energy into their environment in one direction, and absorbing it from the environment in the other direction (Figure 4). The same is true for the chemical reactions involved in cell metabolism, such as the breaking down and building up of proteins into and from individual amino acids, respectively. Reactants within a closed system will undergo chemical reactions in both directions until a state of equilibrium is reached. This state of equilibrium is one of the lowest possible free energy and a state of maximal entropy. Energy must be put into the system to push the reactants and products away from a state of equilibrium. Either reactants or products must be added, removed, or changed. If a cell were a closed system, its chemical reactions would reach equilibrium, and it would die because there would be insufficient free energy left to perform the work needed to maintain life. In a living cell, chemical reactions are constantly moving towards equilibrium, but never reach it. This is because a living cell is an open system. Materials pass in and out, the cell recycles the products of certain chemical reactions into other reactions, and chemical equilibrium is never reached. In this way, living organisms are in a constant energy-requiring, uphill battle against equilibrium and entropy. This constant supply of energy ultimately comes from sunlight, which is used to produce nutrients in the process of photosynthesis.


Figure 4: Exergonic and endergonic reactions result in changes in Gibbs free energy. Exergonic reactions release energy; endergonic reactions require energy to proceed.

Activation Energy

There is another important concept that must be considered regarding endergonic and exergonic reactions. Even exergonic reactions require a small amount of energy input to get going before they can proceed with their energy-releasing steps. These reactions have a net release of energy, but still require some energy in the beginning. This small amount of energy input necessary for all chemical reactions to occur is called the activation energy (or free energy of activation) and is abbreviated EA (Figure 5).

Why would an energy-releasing, negative ∆G reaction actually require some energy to proceed? The reason lies in the steps that take place during a chemical reaction. During chemical reactions, certain chemical bonds are broken and new ones are formed. For example, when a glucose molecule is broken down, bonds between the carbon atoms of the molecule are broken. Since these are energy-storing bonds, they release energy when broken. However, to get them into a state that allows the bonds to break, the molecule must be somewhat contorted. A small energy input is required to achieve this contorted state. This contorted state is called the transition state, and it is a high-energy, unstable state. For this reason, reactant molecules don’t last long in their transition state, but very quickly proceed to the next steps of the chemical reaction. Free energy diagrams illustrate the energy profiles for a given reaction. Whether the reaction is exergonic or endergonic determines whether the products in the diagram will exist at a lower or higher energy state than both the reactants and the products. However, regardless of this measure, the transition state of the reaction exists at a higher energy state than the reactants, and thus, EA is always positive.

Watch an animation of the move from free energy to transition state at this site.

Where does the activation energy required by chemical reactants come from? The source of the activation energy needed to push reactions forward is typically heat energy from the surroundings. Heat energy (the total bond energy of reactants or products in a chemical reaction) speeds up the motion of molecules, increasing the frequency and force with which they collide; it also moves atoms and bonds within the molecule slightly, helping them reach their transition state. For this reason, heating up a system will cause chemical reactants within that system to react more frequently. Increasing the pressure on a system has the same effect. Once reactants have absorbed enough heat energy from their surroundings to reach the transition state, the reaction will proceed.

The activation energy of a particular reaction determines the rate at which it will proceed. The higher the activation energy, the slower the chemical reaction will be. The example of iron rusting illustrates an inherently slow reaction. This reaction occurs slowly over time because of its high EA. Additionally, the burning of many fuels, which is strongly exergonic, will take place at a negligible rate unless their activation energy is overcome by sufficient heat from a spark. Once they begin to burn, however, the chemical reactions release enough heat to continue the burning process, supplying the activation energy for surrounding fuel molecules. Like these reactions outside of cells, the activation energy for most cellular reactions is too high for heat energy to overcome at efficient rates. In other words, in order for important cellular reactions to occur at appreciable rates (number of reactions per unit time), their activation energies must be lowered (Figure 5); this is referred to as catalysis. This is a very good thing as far as living cells are concerned. Important macromolecules, such as proteins, DNA, and RNA, store considerable energy, and their breakdown is exergonic. If cellular temperatures alone provided enough heat energy for these exergonic reactions to overcome their activation barriers, the essential components of a cell would disintegrate.

Art Connection

Figure 5: Activation energy is the energy required for a reaction to proceed, and it is lower if the reaction is catalyzed. The horizontal axis of this diagram describes the sequence of events in time.

If no activation energy were required to break down sucrose (table sugar), would you be able to store it in a sugar bowl?

Section Summary

Energy comes in many different forms. Objects in motion do physical work, and kinetic energy is the energy of objects in motion. Objects that are not in motion may have the potential to do work, and thus, have potential energy. Molecules also have potential energy because the breaking of molecular bonds has the potential to release energy. Living cells depend on the harvesting of potential energy from molecular bonds to perform work. Free energy is a measure of energy that is available to do work. The free energy of a system changes during energy transfers such as chemical reactions, and this change is referred to as ∆G.

The ∆G of a reaction can be negative or positive, meaning that the reaction releases energy or consumes energy, respectively. A reaction with a negative ∆G that gives off energy is called an exergonic reaction. One with a positive ∆G that requires energy input is called an endergonic reaction. Exergonic reactions are said to be spontaneous, because their products have less energy than their reactants. The products of endergonic reactions have a higher energy state than the reactants, and so these are nonspontaneous reactions. However, all reactions (including spontaneous -∆G reactions) require an initial input of energy in order to reach the transition state, at which they’ll proceed. This initial input of energy is called the activation energy.

Art Connections

Exercise 1

Figure 3. Look at each of the processes shown, and decide if it is endergonic or exergonic. In each case, does enthalpy increase or decrease, and does entropy increase or decrease?

Show/Hide Solution

Figure 3. A compost pile decomposing is an exergonic process; enthalpy increases (energy is released) and entropy increases (large molecules are broken down into smaller ones). A baby developing from a fertilized egg is an endergonic process; enthalpy decreases (energy is absorbed) and entropy decreases. Sand art being destroyed is an exergonic process; there is no change in enthalpy, but entropy increases. A ball rolling downhill is an exergonic process; enthalpy decreases (energy is released), but there is no change in enthalpy.

Exercise 2

Figure 5. If no activation energy were required to break down sucrose (table sugar), would you be able to store it in a sugar bowl?

Show/Hide Solution

Figure 5. No. We can store chemical energy because of the need to overcome the barrier to its breakdown.

Review Questions

Exercise 3

Consider a pendulum swinging. Which type(s) of energy is/are associated with the pendulum in the following instances: i. the moment at which it completes one cycle, just before it begins to fall back towards the other end, ii. the moment that it is in the middle between the two ends, iii. just before it reaches the end of one cycle (just before instant i.).

  1. i. potential and kinetic, ii. potential and kinetic, iii. kinetic
  2. i. potential, ii. potential and kinetic, iii. potential and kinetic
  3. i. potential, ii. kinetic, iii. potential and kinetic
  4. i. potential and kinetic, ii. kinetic iii. kinetic

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Exercise 4

Which of the following comparisons or contrasts between endergonic and exergonic reactions is false?

  1. Endergonic reactions have a positive ∆G and exergonic reactions have a negative ∆G
  2. Endergonic reactions consume energy and exergonic reactions release energy
  3. Both endergonic and exergonic reactions require a small amount of energy to overcome an activation barrier
  4. Endergonic reactions take place slowly and exergonic reactions take place quickly

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Exercise 5

Which of the following is the best way to judge the relative activation energies between two given chemical reactions?

  1. Compare the ∆G values between the two reactions
  2. Compare their reaction rates
  3. Compare their ideal environmental conditions
  4. Compare the spontaneity between the two reactions

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Free Response

Exercise 6

Explain in your own words the difference between a spontaneous reaction and one that occurs instantaneously, and what causes this difference.

Show/Hide Solution

A spontaneous reaction is one that has a negative ∆G and thus releases energy. However, a spontaneous reaction need not occur quickly or suddenly like an instantaneous reaction. It may occur over long periods due to a large energy of activation, which prevents the reaction from occurring quickly.

Exercise 7

Describe the position of the transition state on a vertical energy scale, from low to high, relative to the position of the reactants and products, for both endergonic and exergonic reactions.

Show/Hide Solution

The transition state is always higher in energy than the reactants and the products of a reaction (therefore, above), regardless of whether the reaction is endergonic or exergonic.


activation energy
energy necessary for reactions to occur

chemical energy
potential energy in chemical bonds that is released when those bonds are broken

describes chemical reactions that require energy input

total energy of a system

describes chemical reactions that release free energy

free energy
Gibbs free energy is the usable energy, or energy that is available to do work.

heat energy
total bond energy of reactants or products in a chemical reaction

kinetic energy
type of energy associated with objects or particles in motion

potential energy
type of energy that has the potential to do work; stored energy

transition state
high-energy, unstable state (an intermediate form between the substrate and the product) occurring during a chemical reaction