Physics of Energy

Topics - Lectures


8.21: The Physics of Energy involves a close interplay between underlying physical theory and applications. Reflecting this, we develop physical principles in tandem with their applications to energy science. The subject material is loosely divided into three parts, which we cover sequentially through the semester.

In the first part, we focus on end uses of energy. Analysis of basic energy needs such as transport, heating and lighting provide a context for reviewing basic principles of mechanics and electromagnetism from 8.01 and 8.02. We introduce some aspects of quantum mechanics and thermodynamics that are central to understanding questions in energy physics such as limits to efficiency of conversion from heat energy to mechanical energy in an automobile engine.

In the second part of the course, we focus on sources of energy. This material represents a substantial part of the core of the course. Further development of quantum mechanics provides the background for an in-depth introduction to the physics of nuclear power. We follow the progress of solar energy from its release in nuclear fusion reactions in the sun, through radiation to the earth and absorption in terrestrial systems, integrating material from several branches of physics and including an introduction to the physics of semiconductors and photovoltaic technology. Basic fluid dynamics is developed and used to describe the physics of wind and other renewable resources including hydro, tidal, wave and ocean power.

In the third part of the course, we consider systems issues such as energy storage. We also consider the physics of hazards associated with some energy technologies, in particular climate change and nuclear radiation. The course concludes with a discussion of conservation and an overview of what we’ve learned. The complete list of lectures can be found here.