Showing complex energy transfers using bar models

Real life energy transfers can be messy. That is to say, they are complicated and difficult to understand. I think many students get lost in the dense forest of verbiage that has to be deployed to describe their detail and nuance. Bar models are, I think, an effective teaching tool to avoid cognitive overload, especially for GCSE Physics and Combined Science students.

Windmills of our minds

As an example, let’s consider a wind turbine used to generate electricity. As a starting point, let’s think about how much of the kinetic energy ‘harvested’ by the blades is transferred to the generator. The answer is, of course. not as much as we would hope. The majority is, hopefully, but a significant proportion is unavoidably lost via work done by friction to the thermal energy store of the gears.

This can be shown in a visually impactful way using the Bar Model approach:

Note that in this style of energy transfer diagram, the Principle of Conservation of Energy is communicated visually via the width of the bars. The bottom ‘End’ bar has to be exactly the same width as the top ‘Start’ bar.

What happens if a helpful maintenance engineer tops up the oil reservoir of the wind turbine? Well, we have a much happier situation, as shown below.

As we can see, a much greater proportion of the total energy is transferred usefully (and can be used to generate electrical power) in a well-maintained wind turbine.

Using energy efficient appliances in the home

How can we explain the advantages of using more efficient appliances in the home?

A diagram like this can help. The household that uses less efficient appliances has to buy more energy from their energy supplier to achieve exactly the same outcomes as the first. This is both more costly for the household as well as demanding that more resources are needed to generate electricity for no good reason.

Parachute vs. no parachute

Exactly the same amount of energy is transferred from the gravitational energy store of a parachutist whether their parachute deploys successfully or not. However, in the case of a successful deployment, much more energy is transferred into the thermal energy store of the surroundings than into their kinetic energy store. This helps ensure a safe landing!

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