Work Done Against Gravity


Climbing stairs and lifting objects is work in both the scientific and everyday sense—it is work done against the gravitational force. When there is work, there is a transformation of energy. The work done against the gravitational force goes into an important form of stored energy that we will explore in this section.

            Let us calculate the work done in lifting an object of mass m through a height h, for example +If the object is lifted straight up at constant speed, then the force needed to lift it is equal to its weight mg. The work done on the mass is then W = Fd = mgh. We define this to be the gravitational potential energy(PEg) put into (or gained by) the object-Earth system. This energy is associated with the state of separation between two objects that attract each other by the gravitational force. For convenience, we refer to this as the PEg> gained by the object, recognizing that this is energy stored in the gravitational field of Earth. Why do we use the word system ? Potential energy is a property of a system rather than of a single object—due to its physical position. An object's gravitational potential is due to its position relative to the surroundings within the Earth-object system. The force applied to the object is an external force, from outside the system. When it does positive work it increases the gravitational potential energy of the system. Because gravitational potential energy depends on relative position, we need a reference level at which to set the potential energy equal to 0. We usually choose this point to be Earth's surface, but this point is arbitrary; what is important is the difference in gravitational potential energy, because this difference is what relates to the work done. The difference in gravitational potential energy of an object (in the Earth-object system) between two rungs of a ladder will be the same for the first two rungs as for the last two rungs.