Conservation of Energy, Potential Energy, Kinetic Energy, Waterwheels, Water Turbine, Niagara Falls, Dams, and Hydroelectric Power

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 25th, 2012

Technology 101

Roller Coasters use Gravity to Convert Energy back and forth between Potential Energy and Kinetic Energy

We cannot destroy energy.  All we can do is convert it.  It’s a law of physics.  The law of conservation of energy.  A roller coaster shows this.  Where roller coasters move by converting potential energy into kinetic energy.  And then by converting kinetic energy back into potential energy.

The best roller coasters race down tall inclines gaining incredible speed.  The taller the coaster the faster the speed.  That’s because of potential energy (stated in units of joules).  Which is equal to the mass times the force of gravity times the height.  The last component is what makes tall roller coasters fast.  Height.  As the cars inch over the summit gravity begins pulling them down.  And the longer gravity can pull them down the more speed they can gain.  At the bottom of the hill the height is zero so the potential energy is zero.  All energy having been converted into kinetic energy (also stated in units of joules).

Roller coasters travel the fastest at the lowest points in the track.  Where potential energy equals zero.  While kinetic energy is at its highest.  Which is equal to one half times the mass times the velocity squared.  So the higher the track the more time gravity has to accelerate these cars.  At their fastest speed they start up the next incline.  Where the force of gravity begins to pull on them.  Slowing them down as they climb up the next hill.  Converting that kinetic energy back into potential energy.  When they crest the hill for a moment their speed is zero so their kinetic energy is zero.  All energy having been converted back into potential energy.  Where gravity tugs those cars down the next incline.  And so on up and down each successive hill.  Where at all times the sum of potential energy and kinetic energy equals the same amount of joules.  Maximum potential energy is at the top.  Maximum kinetic energy is at the bottom.  And somewhere in the middle they each equal half of their maximum amounts.

(This is a simplified explanation.  Additional forces are ignored for simplicity to illustrate the relation between potential energy and kinetic energy.)

We build Dams on Rivers  to do what Niagara Falls does Naturally

So once over the first hill roller coasters run only on gravity.  And the conversion of energy from potential to kinetic energy and back again.  Except for that first incline.  Where man-made power pulls the cars up.  Electric power.  Produced by generators.  Spun by kinetic energy.  Produced from the expanding gases of combustion in a natural gas-powered plant.  Or from high-pressure steam produced in a coal-fired power plant or nuclear power plant.  Or in another type of power plant that converts potential energy into kinetic energy.  In a hydroelectric dam.

Using water power dates back to our first civilizations.  Then we just used the kinetic energy of a moving stream to turn a waterwheel.  These waterwheels turned shafts and pulleys to transfer this power to work stations.  So they couldn’t spin too fast.  Which wasn’t a problem because people only used rivers and streams with moderate currents.  So these wheels didn’t spin fast.  But they could turn a mill stone.  Or run a sawmill.  With far more efficiency than people working with hand tools.  But there isn’t enough energy in a slow moving river or stream to produce electricity.  Which is why we built some of our first hydroelectric power plants at Niagara Falls.  Where there was a lot of water at a high elevation that fell to a lower elevation.  And if you stick a water turbine in the path of that water you can generate electricity.

Of course, there aren’t Niagara Falls all around the country.  Where nature made water fall from a high elevation to a low elevation.  So we had to step in to shape nature to do what Niagara Falls does naturally.  By building dams on rivers.  As we blocked the flow of water the water backed up behind the dam.  And the water level climbed up the river banks to from a large reservoir.  Or lake.  Raising the water level on one side of the dam much higher than the other side.  Creating a huge pool of potential energy (mass times gravity times height).  Just waiting to be converted into kinetic energy.  To drive a water turbine.  The higher the height of the water behind the dam (or the higher the head) the greater the potential energy.  And the greater the kinetic energy of the water flow.  When it flows.

Hydroelectric Power is the Cleanest and Most Reliable Source of Renewable Energy-Generated Power

Near the water level behind the dam are water inlets into channels through the dam or external penstocks (large pipes) that channels the water from the high elevation to the low elevation and into the vanes of the water turbine.  The water flows into these curved vanes which redirects this water flow down through the turbine.  Creating rotational motion that drives a generator.  After exiting the turbine the water discharges back into the river below the dam.

Our electricity is an alternating current at 60 hertz (or cycles per second).  These turbines, though, don’t spin at 60 revolutions per second.  So to create 60 hertz they have to use different generators than they use with steam turbines.  Steam turbines spin a generator with only one rotating magnetic field to induce a current in the stator (i.e., stationary) windings of the generator.  They can produce an alternating current at 60 hertz because the high pressure steam can spin these generators at 60 revolutions per second.  The water flowing through a turbine can’t.  So they add additional rotational magnetic fields in the generator.  Twelve rotational magnetic fields can produce 60 hertz of alternating current while the generator only spins at 5 revolutions per second.  Adjustable gates open and close to let more or less water to flow through the turbine to maintain a constant rotation.

The hydroelectric power plant is one of the simplest of power generating plants.  There is no fuel needed to generate heat to make steam.  No steam pressure to monitor closely to prevent explosions.  No fires to worry about in the mountains of coal stored at a plant.  No nuclear meltdown to worry about.  And no emissions.  All you need is water.  From snow in the winter that melts in the spring.  And rain.  Not to mention a good river to dam.  If the water comes the necessary head behind the dam will be there to spin those turbines.  But sometimes the water isn’t there.  And the dams have to shut down generators because there isn’t enough water.  But hydroelectric power is still the cleanest and most reliable source of electric power generated from renewable energy we have.  But it does have one serious drawback.  You need a river to dam.  And the best spots already have a dam on them.  Leaving little room for expansion of hydroelectric power.  Which is why we generate about half of our electric power from coal.  Because we can build a coal-fired power plant pretty much anywhere we want to.  And they will run whether or not we have snow or rain.  Because they are that reliable.

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