The word "work" means different things in different contexts. In science, it is a thermodynamic concept. The SI unit for work is the joule. Physicists and chemists, in particular, view work in relation to energy:
Work is the energy required to move an object against a force. In fact, one definition of energy is the capacity to do work. There are many different kinds of work. Examples include:
- Electrical work
- Work against gravity
- Work against a magnetic field
- Mechanical work
Key Takeaways: Work Definition in Science
- In physical science, such as physics and chemistry, work is force multiplied by distance.
- Work occurs if there is movement in the direction of the force.
- The SI unit of work is the joule (J). This is the work expended by a force of one newton (N) over a displacement of one meter (m).
Mechanical work is the type of work most commonly dealt with in physics and chemistry. It includes work moving against gravity (e.g., up an elevator) or any opposing force. Work is equal to the force times the distance the object moves:
w = F*d
where w is work, F is the opposing force, and d is the distance
This equation may also be written as:
w = m*a*d
where a is the acceleration
Another common type of work is pressure-volume work. This is work done by frictionless pistons and ideal gases. The equation to calculate the expansion or compression of a gas is:
w = -PΔV
where w is work, P is pressure, and ΔV is the change in volume
Sign Convention for Work
Note that equations for work employ the following sign convention:
- Work performed by the system on the surroundings has a negative sign.
- Heat flow from the system into the surroundings has a negative sign.