Energy: First Year Seminar Spring 2019

An introduction to energy and the environment

Prof. Michael Brown

Swarthmore College, Department of Physics and Astronomy

e-mail address:


A solar array in Nevada, US direct sunlight map, solar spectrum




Forms of energy: kinetic, potential, heat, electrical, magnetic, chemical...

Energy and heat: thermodynamics, temperature, efficiency, engines

Fossil fuels: oil, coal, natural gas... when will we run out? Hubbert's peak

Nuclear energy: fission and fusion

The electric grid

Geothermal and tidal energy

Solar energy: photovoltaics, demonstration with photovoltaic array

Hydropower, wind, biomass

Transportation and buildings

Hydrogen fuel cells: demonstration with hydrogen fuel cell system

Climate and global warming: The greenhouse effect. Is the Earth warming?



The goal of the seminar is to study the state of the world's energy resources. We'll begin with an overview of the concept of energy. We'll discuss the idea of thermodynamics, then work through the various forms of energy (fossil fuels, nuclear, solar, hydrogen...). We'll close with a discussion of climate change and global warming.

With concerns about oil pipelines and spills in the news, we will study how oil is harvested. We will study the evidence for "Hubbert's peak" and the end of oil for the planet.

We will study the case for nuclear energy, both conventional fission energy (about 100 plants in the US) and more speculative fusion energy (MB's research area).


Upcoming Events

Departmental advising open house. We will be meeting Tuesday afternoons, Spring semester 2019.



The book we'll be using is Energy, Environment, and Climate (third edition) by Richard Wolfson, and Physics for Future Presidents by Richard Muller

The seminar will feature hands-on demonstrations of photovoltaics, hydrogen fuel cell, and electrical energy.

There will be one section: Tuesdays 1-4 PM

The seminar format means that students will play an active role in presenting material.

The seminar is open to anyone in the first-year class of 2022. The math prerequisite is high school algebra and we will do lots of calculations.

Additional reserve reading will include the National Academies recent report on energy policy, "Energy Science" by Andrews and Jelley, "Energy and the Environment" by Ristinen and Kraushaar, "Energy" by Hinrichs and Kleinbach.


Relevant Links

The US Energy Information Administration EIA

EIA Annual Energy Review

Inventory of Existing Units

The National Academies America's Energy Future

Department of Energy

Environmental Protection Agency

Nuclear Regulatory Commision

Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC)

US DOE Fusion Energy Sciences

fusion education

CDIAC Trends for Global Change

Deepwater Horizon response

Deepwater Horizon aftermath



This page is maintained by Michael Brown

Last modified: November 14, 2018