How to Calculate Potential Energy

By Jessica Pestka; Updated April 24, 2017
Calculate Potential Energy

Stored energy within any system is called potential energy (PE). Potential energy exists all around us waiting to be converted to kinetic energy, the energy of motion. A rollercoaster at the top of a hill is a classic example of potential energy. At the peak of the hill, the car has potential energy, because it has the potential to become a moving object. As the car moves down the hill, this potential energy is converted into rapid movement -- kinetic energy. Potential energy can be found in a variety of forms. Gravitational potential energy is the possible energy of an object due to the force of gravity. The energy potential of an elastic item, such as a crossbow or a rubber band, is called elastic potential energy. Chemical bonds also have a form of stored energy termed chemical potential energy. The energy obtained from the digestion of food is a kind of chemical potential energy. Energy from magnetic fields and nuclear energy are stored as electrical potential energy. Thermal potential energy is energy stored that comes from the random movement of particles. All of these forms of potential energy can be determined using different calculations. The simplest of these calculations, the calculation for gravitational potential energy, requires that the mass of an object, the acceleration due to the force of gravity and the height the object be known.

Obtain or measure the mass (in grams) of the object whose potential energy you wish to calculate.

Acquire or determine the height (in meters) of the object whose potential energy you want to calculate.

Multiply the mass of the object by the acceleration of an object due to gravity. This acceleration is known to be 9.8 meters/per second squared.

Multiply the number obtained in Step 3 by the height from Step 2. This is the potential energy of the object as given by the equation PE=mgh where m is mass in grams, g is the acceleration due to gravity and h is height in meters.


Only the potential energy due to gravity can be calculated using the above steps. The other forms of potential energy are determined using different calculations. These calculations are provided in the references below. The standard units (SI) for potential energy are Joules, or kilograms per meter per seconds squared (kg*m/s2). Any calculated potential energy not in Joules should be converted accordingly.


To ensure accuracy, always double-check any calculations or measurements you perform.