Introduction to Energy

Energy is a vital component of the world around us. Nearly every physical and chemical process, including all processes discussed in previous chapters, occurs with a simultaneous energy change. Chemical reactions, such as those that occur when you light a match or bake cookies, involve changes in energy as well as matter. Physical changes involves changes in energy as well, such as boiling water or freezing water to form ice cubes. In this chapter, we will explore the nature of energy and how energy and chemistry are related to food and cooking.

A match held in a person’s hand is ignited as it is scratched along the rough surface of a match box.
Sliding a match head along a rough surface initiates a combustion reaction that produces energy in the form of heat and light. (credit: modification of work by Laszlo Ilyes)

Chemical changes and their accompanying changes in energy are important parts of food and cooking (Figure 5.2). The macronutrients in food (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) undergo metabolic reactions that provide the energy to keep our bodies functioning. We burn a variety of fuels (gasoline, natural gas, coal) to produce energy and electricity for cooking foods in our kitchens, heating our homes, and transportation around our cities. Industrial chemical reactions use enormous amounts of energy to produce raw materials (such as iron and aluminum). Energy is then used to manufacture those raw materials into useful products, such as cast-iron cookware and aluminum foil.

Three pictures are shown and labeled a, b, and c. Picture a is a cheeseburger. Picture b depicts a highway that is full of traffic. Picture c is a view into an industrial metal furnace. The view into the furnace shows a hot fire burning inside.
The energy involved in chemical changes is important to our daily lives: (a) A cheeseburger for lunch provides the energy you need to get through the rest of the day; (b) the combustion of gasoline provides the energy that moves your car (and you) between home, work, and school; and (c) coke, a processed form of coal, provides the energy needed to convert iron ore into iron, which is essential for making many of the products we use daily. (credit a: modification of work by “Pink Sherbet Photography”/Flickr; credit b: modification of work by Jeffery Turner)

Over 90% of the energy we use comes originally from the sun. Plants capture solar energy through photosynthesis. We use this energy to fuel our bodies by eating plant-based food or food from animal sources that got their energy by eating plants. Burning coal and petroleum also releases stored solar energy: These fuels are fossilized plant and animal matter.

Types of Energy

Energy, another important quantity in chemistry, is the ability to supply heat or perform work, such as moving a box of books from one side of a room to the other side. You can understand what this means by thinking about yourself when you feel “energetic.” You feel ready to go—to jump up and get something done. When you have a lot of energy, you can perform a lot of work. By contrast, if you do not feel energetic, you have very little desire to do much of anything. This description is not only applicable to you but also to all physical and chemical processes. The quantity of work that can be done is related to the quantity of energy available to do it.

Like matter, energy comes in different types. One scheme classifies energy into two types:

  • potential energy: the energy an object has because of its relative position, composition, or condition
  • kinetic energy: the energy that an object possesses because of its motion

Water at the top of a waterfall or dam has potential energy because of its position; when it flows downward through generators, it has kinetic energy that can be used to do work and produce electricity in a hydroelectric plant. A battery has potential energy because the chemicals within it can produce electricity that can do work.

Two pictures are shown and labeled a and b. Picture a shows a large waterfall with water falling from a high elevation at the top of the falls to a lower elevation. The second picture is a view looking down into the Hoover Dam. Water is shown behind the high wall of the dam on one side and at the base of the dam on the other.
(a) Water at a higher elevation, for example, at the top of Victoria Falls, has a higher potential energy than water at a lower elevation. As the water falls, some of its potential energy is converted into kinetic energy. (b) If the water flows through generators at the bottom of a dam, such as the Hoover Dam shown here, its kinetic energy is converted into electrical energy. (credit a: modification of work by Steve Jurvetson; credit b: modification of work by “curimedia”/Wikimedia commons)

Energy can be converted from one form into another, but all of the energy present before a change occurs always exists in some form after the change is completed. This observation is expressed in the law of conservation of energy: during a chemical or physical change, energy can be neither created nor destroyed, although it can be changed in form.

When one substance is converted into another, there is always an associated conversion of one form of energy into another. Heat is usually released or absorbed, but sometimes the conversion involves light, electrical energy, or some other form of energy. For example, chemical energy (a type of potential energy) is stored in the molecules that compose gasoline. When gasoline is combusted within the cylinders of a car’s engine, the rapidly expanding gaseous products of this chemical reaction generate mechanical energy (a type of kinetic energy) when they move the cylinders’ pistons.

Click on the PhET simulation to explore energy forms and changes. Visit the Energy Systems tab to create combinations of energy sources, transformation methods, and outputs. Click on Energy Symbols to visualize the transfer of energy.


This page is based on “Chemistry 2e” by Paul Flowers, Klaus Theopold, Richard Langley, William R. Robinson, PhDOpenstax which is licensed under CC BY 4.0. Access for free at

This page is based on “The Basics of General, Organic, and Biological Chemistry” by David W Ball, John W Hill, Rhonda J ScottSaylor which is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Access for free at


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Chemistry of Food and Cooking Copyright © 2022 by Jessica Wittman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.