Welcome to the Physics of Energy and the Environment  (PHY-250)  Home Page

Module Organiser : Dr. Mark Baxendale, Room 122 G O Jones.

Deputy Module Organiser : Prof. Steve Thoams

Office Hour : Wednesday 11.00-12.00

Books :

  1. Andrews and Jelley , Energy Science : Principles, technologies and impacts ( main text book)
  2. D. MacKay : Sustainable Energy - without the hot air(
  3. Peake and Smith : Climate Change
  4. Sorensen : Renewable Energy (3rd edition) - Elsevier

Please consult the "Weekly Outline" for weekly updates on the detailed content, suggestions for reading etc. 



The course will demonstrate the relevance of Physics to topical issues of energy and  the environment. Students will see concepts and equations in mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, quantum physics, from fundamental physics finding applications in the understanding of energy resources, technologies  and their effects on the environment

Learning Outcomes

Students will be able to quantify energy transfer and efficiencies in basic processes relevant to energy technologies. They will be able to explain how knowledge from diverse areas of fundamental physics is used for progress in energy technology and in issues of environmental impact. They will be able to perform informed manipulations of quantitative data in scientific articles on energy and related environmental issues.


Applied concepts and equations of physics (including mechanics, thermodynamics, waves, quantum physics) in the mathematical description of energy transfer processes in natural energy sources, and in energy technologies. Analysis of efficiencies of energy transfer will be included. The emphasis will be on useful quantitative results from physics rather than detailed derivations. Examples will be drawn from wind, wave, solar and nuclear energies. The relevance of Physics in understanding and improving energy technologies as well as assessing their environmental impact will be emphasised. Specific topics will include; first and second laws of thermodynamics, wind energy, Betz limit on efficiency of wind turbines, solar energy, semiconductor physics relevant to solar cells, radioactivity, nuclear reactors and nuclear waste disposal. A project towards the end of the course will lead students to writing a review on a topic chosen from eg. Current ideas in improving efficiency in emerging energy technologies or Environmental impact of nuclear energy.

Weekly Outline

Weeks1-2 :

Themes :  Estimates of energy resources and consumption,  thermodynamics,  global warming.

 Week 1
  • "Energy Crisis",  Entropy and second law, Thermodynamic potentials,
  • Availability ( Blundell and Blundell -- Chapter 16.5)
  • Efficiency of hydropower station and steam-operated power plant, Second law and efficiency ;
  • Peak oil, Logistic function ; Solar Energy incident on the Earth.
Week 2 :

Further Reading :

  1. Climate Change - From Science to sustainability : Chapter 2 (Key scientific evidence for climate change) of Peake and Smith ( P&S)
  2. Sustainable Energy : Without the hot air ( free e-book at  ) by David MacKay  ( DMK) - Chapter II.31
  3. Global Climate models -Wiki
  4. Reports from IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

Week 3-4-5

Theme : Solar Energy 

Basic Reading : AJ Chapter  6

Week 3 :

Nuclear reactions in  the  sun,  solar equilibrium, Planck distribution, flux  as vector,geometry of orientation of solar panels  (tilt of earth's axis, latitude, solar declination)

For geometry related to sun's position in the sky as a function of latitude, hour of the day and time of the year see :

Wikipedia : insolation

 Wikipedia :  spherical law of cosines           

Week 4

Metals, semiconductors and insulators : Energy bands ; p-n junction ; solar cell ; I-V characteristic of solar cell, fill factor, environmental impact of photovoltaics

Further reading :

  1. J. Nelson,  Physics of Solar Cells, Chapters 1 and 2
  2. Shockley and Quiesser,  ``Detailed Balance Limit of Efficiency of p-n Junction Solar Cells,''
    Link to Journal Article (pdf can be downloaded via QMUL-Library
Week  5

theoretical bounds on efficiency of solar cell.

Lab measurements of solar cell I-V characteristics.

Week 6

Discussion of project topics and schedule.

Weeks 7 :

Reading week (start thinking about project) 

Week  8-9 :

Wind energy :

Mass continuity, Power in wind, Betz limit, Bernoulli's principle , angle of twist and width of turbine blades, lift and drag, power curves.

Reading : AJ Chapter 5

If you are doing a project on Wind energy, you will also find the book by Twidell and Weir useful.

Week 10 :

Nuclear fission

Binding energies, nuclear induced fission, half-life, cross-sections, nuclear reactors, nuclear waste

Week 11 :

Nuclear fusion

Week 12 :

Project presentations


Homework will be on the web-site by Tuesday. It will be due the following Tuesday by 4 p.m.

Midterm test: Tuesday 26 Feb. 14:00-15:00 Queens' Building EB1

Essay hand-in date: Tuesday 12 March by 4 p.m.


 Exam 60% , Midterm test 10 % , Homeworks 20 % , Project 10 %

Midterm test results


Solar Cell measurements, Week 5.