The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained

Course No. 1363
Professor Michael E. Wysession, Ph.D.
Washington University in St. Louis
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Course No. 1363
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  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, diagrams, illustrations, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. While the video version can be considered lightly illustrated, it does feature numerous demonstrations, diagrams, and custom animations for each type of energy, as well as on-screen text to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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What Will You Learn?

  • Learn how photosynthesis, combustion, and heat engines work.
  • Examine the science behind petroleum: how it's formed, how it's found and processed, how it's transported, and how it's used.
  • Examine the inner-workings of a power plant to learn how nuclear energy is generated.
  • Go inside the world of photovoltaic solar panels to find out how they convert sunlight into functional power.
  • Look at geothermal energy and discover two main ways of using geothermal energy, plus examine five different technologies used for hydrothermal power systems.
  • Review the pros and cons of using one of the newest forms of energy: biofuels.

Course Overview

Energy is, without a doubt, the very foundation of the universe. It’s the engine that powers life and fuels the evolution of human civilization.

Yet for all its importance, what energy really is and how it works remains a mystery to most non-scientists. For example:

  • Where does most of our energy come from, and how is it sourced?
  • How do energy technologies, both primitive and cutting-edge, generate power?
  • How do we store energy—and will there be enough to meet our future needs?
  • What are the pros and cons behind the forms of energy currently available to us?
  • How might we harness potential future energy sources such as earthquakes and supervolcanoes?

All too often, the answers to questions like these are bogged down in polemics and controversy. Imagine, then, how these and other questions could be discussed from a purely factual, scientific perspective. The truth is, to better put into perspective the various issues surrounding energy in the 21st century, you need to understand the essential science behind how energy works. And you need a reliable source whose focus is on giving you the facts you need to form your own educated opinions.

In the 24 lectures of The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained, award-winning professor and expert geophysicist Michael E. Wysession of Washington University in St. Louis presents an unbiased investigation into the energy sources that power our world. Vividly illustrated with animations, 3-D graphics, graphs, in-studio demonstrations, and other visuals that make scientific and mathematical concepts approachable and understandable, The Science of Energy is a marvelous window into the inner workings of energy that will keep you constantly engaged.

Professor Wysession walks you through a wide portfolio of renewable and non-renewable energy sources, including coal, oil, natural gas, solar, wind, geothermal, and nuclear fission. You’ll examine how these sources work, the engineering marvels that adapt them to human needs, the economic and environmental consequences of using them, and more. Whatever exciting, rapid changes await us in the coming decades (from food production to public transportation to industrial manufacturing), they’ll most certainly require lots of power. For this reason and many more, this course imparts essential information for any well-informed citizen of the world—whether you’re powering a major city or simply turning on the bathroom light.

Evoking Energy from Every Element

The Science of Energy provides you with a thorough, understandable introduction to the fundamentals of different energy sources that we often take for granted. With the same attention to detail and accessibility that makes Professor Wysession one of The Great Courses’ most popular science instructors, his lectures offer a fascinating way to grasp the essentials of the world’s varied energy sources.

  • Fossil fuels: Coal and petroleum are responsible for the remarkable industrial transformation of human culture over the past few centuries. A sedimentary rock, coal develops in stages with progressively more carbon—which determines how “dirty” or “clean” the coal burns. Petroleum, on the other hand, derives from the fossils of once-living ocean organisms (mostly one-celled plankton) tens of millions of years old.
  • Hydroelectricity: Hydropower provides an estimated 1/6 of the world’s total electricity. The basic principle behind how it works is that, as water falls down through the power plant, its gravitational potential energy converts into the kinetic energy of the motion of the water, which turns the turbines of a generator.
  • Nuclear energy: When most people talk about nuclear power, they’re referring to nuclear fission, or the splitting of large atoms to release energy. Relative to human time scales, nuclear energy can provide nearly unlimited power by processing ocean water for available uranium (only a small amount of which is needed to generate electricity).
  • Solar energy: Solar energy’s main engineering marvels are photovoltaic solar panels that convert sunlight directly into electricity using semiconducting materials that exhibit a photoelectric effect. While solar energy is constantly renewable, it’s also very geographically dependent; for example, solar power is less effective in a place like Seattle, where it rains a lot.
  • Wind energy: People have been harnessing the power of wind for thousands of years with technologies like sailing ships and windmills. But as civilizations have advanced, so too have the technologies to transform wind into a reliable (and renewable) power source. Wind turbines, for example, work like plane propellers in reverse: the natural wind blows through the rotors and then generates a force that powers the engine.

Learn How Energy Shapes Our Lives

“Humans consume an enormous amount of energy,” says Professor Wysession, “and countless decisions are made every day—locally, nationally, internationally—to make sure our supply of energy remains available, affordable, and uninterrupted.” As you explore the science of energy sources, you’ll also delve into their impact on everything from economic trade agreements to geographical dependency to environmental pollution. The goal of these lectures is not to choose a particular side in the energy debate; rather, it’s to illustrate just how far-reaching this science is in our lives. Much of the second half of this course is devoted to probing fascinating questions about energy’s role and influence in a range of subjects, from natural science and sociology to nuclear physics and meteorology.

  • Energy and technology: How can scientists and engineers tap into the energy potential of natural disasters? What technological methods help us remove many of the pollutants that occur during combustion? What intricate technologies are required to keep a nuclear plant functioning safely?
  • Energy and economics: What hidden factors are responsible for the rise and fall of oil prices around the world? Which are more cost-effective: electric or gas-powered cars? How do government incentives and disincentives impact various energy industries?
  • Energy and geography: Why are particular regions of the planet more enriched with petroleum sources? What factors make the world’s coastlines optimal for building wind turbines to harvest wind energy? How does heavy cloud coverage influence the effectiveness of solar panels?
  • Energy and the environment: How does the process of fracking for oil lead to potentially dangerous earthquakes? What are the best ways to store nuclear waste, and what exactly happens during a nuclear plant meltdown? Just how serious is our current era of global warming?

Get a Practical Education in Energy Science

An acclaimed teacher with a devotion to geoscience education, Professor Wysession is passionate about sharing this vital information with a broad audience. He brings to these lectures a fascination with just how intricate the universe is, and his dedication to sharing that fascination makes this course accessible and engaging for lifelong learners of all backgrounds. Whether he’s explaining the basics of the water cycle or the potential for harvesting energy from supervolcanoes, his work here is designed to help you better think about (and talk about) how we power our lives.

Over millennia, our ability to harness varied forms of energy has driven the ascending progress of our cultures, economies, and governments. The extraordinary world-spanning civilizations that we have built rely utterly on a vast, dependable, and lasting supply of energy. The choices we make—as consumers, as contributors, as citizens—have profound consequences for how the world will continue to develop. The Science of Energy gives you the clear and objective facts you need to choose well.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 33 minutes each
  • 1
    Energy and Human Civilization
    How much energy is required to power human civilization? What is it that makes our cities, factories, homes, and cars so energy inefficient? How can the average individual affect energy directions? Find out in this overview of how energy touches everything from engineering and economics to biology, chemistry, and geophysics. x
  • 2
    Energy: Forms and Conversion for Use
    Energy is a fundamental part of our universe-in a sense, the universe is energy. Here, Professor Wysession introduces you to the many fascinating forms energy takes, including potential, kinetic, mechanical, and thermal energy. He also explains how energy is measured to make you more fluent in energy-speak" for the coming lectures." x
  • 3
    Heat: The Transfer and Flow of Energy
    One of the first forms of energy that humans learned to use is heat. You'll examine three ways heat flows (radiation, convection, conduction); make sense of the heat flow equation and the concept of entropy; and go inside the inner workings of a heat engine" machine." x
  • 4
    Electricity: Ultimate Energy Converter
    Discover what makes electricity such an attractive vehicle for energy. Learn how electricity can come from oil, coal, solar, and other forces, and how electricity travels through wires with the help of voltage. Also, examine recent advances that make it easier for us to choose where we source our electricity. x
  • 5
    Chemical Energy, Biomass, and Photosynthesis
    Turn now to chemical energy, the potential energy resulting from the position of atoms within molecules. After an overview of photosynthesis (perhaps the universe's most amazing form of energy conversion), learn how combustion transforms biofuels into light and heat, and how energy density affects the transportation of biofuels like petroleum. x
  • 6
    Coal: Convenient, Energy-Dense Fuel
    Understand one of energy's most polarizing topics: coal. Where does coal come from, and how does it develop? What makes coal clean" or "dirty"? Why do certain nations have the largest coal reserves? What are some advantages to coal energy? And how does strip mining impact the environment?" x
  • 7
    Petroleum: Chemistry, Retrieval, and Use
    In the first of two lectures on petroleum, examine the science behind this common fossil fuel: how it's formed, how it's found and processed, how it's transported, and how it's used. You'll also gain insights into related topics, including geologic structures such as anticlines and the growth of the petroleum industry. x
  • 8
    New Petroleum Directions
    Peer into the future with this look at some of the newest trends in oil and gas production. Professor Wysession explains the difference between conventional and unconventional oil, the geology of oil sands and oil shales, and the risks of fracking (which can cause earthquakes and other serious damage). x
  • 9
    Fossil Fuel Energy: Issues and Concerns
    Fossil fuels, while abundant and portable, come with a significant list of drawbacks. Focus now on the various financial, environmental, and health concerns surrounding our continued reliance on fossil fuels (such as coal fires and oil spills). Then, examine some recent technological and legislative efforts to combat these problems. x
  • 10
    Understanding Carbon Dioxide
    Carbon dioxide is a pollutant so significant to human civilization that Professor Wysession devotes an entire lecture to it. If CO2 is only 0.04% of the atmosphere, how can it be so harmful? Is global warming a natural process? What actions can we take to reduce the dangers of CO2? x
  • 11
    The Science of Nuclear Power
    Travel to the subatomic level for a fascinating exploration of how nuclear energy is generated. It's an eye-opening lecture that touches on everything from nuclear fission and radioactive decay to the inner workings of nuclear power plants and the attendant fears and concerns of core meltdowns. x
  • 12
    The Nuclear Fission Fuel Cycle
    Professor Wysession explains how uranium is used to make electricity through the process of nuclear fission, from acquiring uranium-bearing rocks to disposing of leftover nuclear waste. Afterwards, learn some of the upsides of nuclear energy (including its nearly unlimited power) and its downsides (such as its inability to become decentralized or portable). x
  • 13
    Sunlight: Inexhaustible Energy Source
    Sunlight is a literally inexhaustible source of energy. Discover why (and how) the sun gives off light, how much sunlight energy the earth's surface gets in an average day, how much land we'd need to supply all our energy needs through sunlight, and some of the geographical problems with solar power. x
  • 14
    Solar Power and Electricity
    The biggest area of growth for solar energy: transforming sunlight into electricity with the aid of solar panels. Go inside the world of photovoltaic solar panels to find out how they convert sunlight into functional power. Also, take a closer look at other solar-related technologies, like solar troughs, solar towers, and Stirling engines. x
  • 15
    Wind Power and Electricity
    Wind power is another growing source of renewable energy. First, discover how giant wind turbines provide us with energy. Then, get a brief history of how humans have tapped into wind's potential and the meteorology of how wind works. Finally, learn the best regions for wind power and the advantages and drawbacks of using wind turbines. x
  • 16
    Hydroelectric Power: Electricity from Water
    Hydroelectric power continues to be the planet's largest renewable source of electricity. In this lecture, Professor Wysession discusses the benefits of hydroelectric power (no CO2 production, free fuel) and drawbacks (environmental disruption); how hydroelectricity generation works; run-of-the-river and impoundment-style power plants; and the basics of the water cycle. x
  • 17
    Biofuels: Biodiesel and Ethanol
    Liquid biofuels like biodiesel and corn-based ethanol are the most rapidly growing forms of biomass energy in the 21st century. Here, survey some of the many intriguing chemical reaction routes that transform solid plant biomass into liquids with high-energy densities. Then, ponder some of the economic and political implications of biofuels. x
  • 18
    Geothermal Energy
    Go deep underground for a look at geothermal energy. Topics include the energy budget of our planet, two main ways of using geothermal energy, five different technologies used for hydrothermal power systems (including dry steam power plants), and the concept of shallow ground source heat pumps (GSHPs). x
  • 19
    Energy Storage Technologies
    The sun doesn't always shine, and the wind doesn't always blow. So how do we store renewable energy from these and other sources for later? Focus on several basic (as well as high-performance and high-volume) technologies for storing the surplus of energy we can get from sources such as wind and solar farms. x
  • 20
    Energy Needs for Transportation
    Transportation is an enormous part of our global total energy consumption. From planes to trains to automobiles, learn how scientists are working to make popular modes of transportation as fuel-efficient as possible. Also, explore the topic of electric cars and whether or not they're truly more efficient than gas-powered ones. x
  • 21
    Energy Efficiency: Technologies and Trends
    Where is energy commonly being wasted? How does one become a more efficient energy user? This lecture is filled with takeaways to help anyone (from home owner to car driver to CEO) become more energy efficient in a range of sectors and settings: industries, transportation, residences, and commercial buildings. x
  • 22
    Energy Sources: Economics and Politics
    Professor Wysession outlines some of the major economic and political forces shaping the development of the world's energy resources. You'll learn how hidden costs can affect the economics of supply and demand, how governments can incentivize and dis-incentivize energy industries, and the complexities of international agreements (and trade wars). x
  • 23
    Probable and Possible Future Energy Sources
    Look ahead to the possible (and probable) advancements in the areas of energy resources. You'll cover the growth of tidal and wave energy, the difficulty of nuclear fusion, the energy potential of earthquakes and supervolcanoes, and giant space arrays of solar panels designed to capture even more solar energy. x
  • 24
    Energy Trends: Planning for the Near Future
    According to Professor Wysession, there's no easy solution to the world's energy future. Going through many of the sources explored in previous lectures, he estimates how much energy we'll need, what sources are (and will be) available to us, and how to think realistically-and optimistically-about our energy consumption. x

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  • Download 24 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
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Audio Download Includes:
  • Download 24 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
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DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 200-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available
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CD Includes:
  • 24 Lectures on 12 CDs
  • 200-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 200-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos, Illustrations, and Tables
  • Suggested Reading
  • Questions to Consider

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Your professor

Michael E. Wysession

About Your Professor

Michael E. Wysession, Ph.D.
Washington University in St. Louis
Dr. Michael E. Wysession is the Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Wysession earned his Sc.B. in Geophysics from Brown University and his Ph.D. from Northwestern University. An established leader in seismology and geophysical education, Professor Wysession is noted for his development of a new way to create three-dimensional images of Earth's interior from seismic...
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Reviews

The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 53.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good content, relevant information, well narrated, loved it, listened mant times over
Date published: 2018-10-15
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing From Many Perspectives I am very busy and so rarely review courses. To get me to write, the course has to be either very good or very disappointing. Unfortunately this course is the latter. The instructor, a professor of Geology, begins with two lectures that are dry recitations of energy units and conversion factors. I have an hour commute each way, and by the way home I was wondering if I would finish the course. I did finish it. In the middle of the course I got two strong impressions. First, that for a professor of Geology, he certainly has a lot of opinions about science and engineering that are far outside his area of expertise. Second, I got the impression that he was talking down to the audience. As an example of his opinions, he is very open about his desire to promote renewable energy. After mentioning cost figures that don't clearly identify the impact of government subsidies (corporate welfare), he proposes that the reliability problem of solar and wind can be solved with energy storage facilities. Two things are not clear, however. First, why that cost is not added to the cost of the renewables -- certainly reliability of service is a key criteria for power generation and we would never tolerate a conventional plant that went on and offline based on clouds. Second, once we build the storage facility, is it better to fill it with variable renewable energy or a slight increase in baseload nuclear or combined cycle gas? The end of the course confirmed my second Impression. After hinting at least twice during the course that the answer to our energy problems included limiting the number of humans on the planet, in the final lecture (#24) he asserts that we have a population problem that can be solved by educating people -- because more educated people have fewer children (!). See page 176 of the guidebook for his recommendation for people to have fewer children. I thought I was buying a class to learn about The Science of Energy -- not to hear a Planned Parenthood lecture about having fewer children. I know plenty of educated parents who consider their children a blessing, not a curse. I also know plenty of less-educated parents who would be deeply offended by his assertion that they only have children because they don't have a Phd. This geology professor flies a false flag in this course, and I don't appreciate it one bit. I've done about 50 of these courses in the last 10 years, and this one is in the bottom 10%. You will learn some things, but you will have to wade through a lot of chaff to find the wheat.
Date published: 2018-07-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not a science course It should be called The History of Energy with Statistical Data. It is a great lecture on how different forms of energy have evolved and their environmental impact.
Date published: 2018-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Almost every course l’ve rewiewed. I have 72 Courses and am looking at two more. I can’t keep up, but love most of them. The only complaint I can think of is that the discounts I see in emails usually have ended at midnight a few day ago.
Date published: 2018-05-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Science of Energy Review This course did a great job of explaining the various pros and cons of the different energy sources. I was very clear and easy to understand
Date published: 2018-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course This course is very rich in content and yet easy to comprehend. I also enjoyed the Professor's holistic approach into the topic of energy that touched from biology to geopolitics
Date published: 2018-04-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Overly heavy on speculative statistics As a geologist, I thought that, since the professor was a geophysicist, this might be a course to learn something. However, I am sad to report that it turned rather quickly into a listing of poorly explained units and an interminable listing of statistics and speculation about what could be or what should be, or what maybe was in the past, or what possibly could happen in the future. A lot of unnecessary science fantasy based on a lot of meaningless macro-statistics. I was hoping as I listened that this would get better, but with each type of energy discussed, it retained its focus on macro statistics, as if that would explain the energy comparisons. Not at all what this course should have been. I was looking forward to taking his other course on geological wonders, but now I will not.
Date published: 2018-02-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A comprehensive overview of the energy complex Dr. Wysession's course covers a lot of material from the basic science to the technologies to the economics and politics of energy. He's a real expert in a complicated field and presents the material in a clear and concise manner. I learned a lot about the field and would recommend the course to anyone looking to learn about the subject - but be prepared for a lot of concepts and ideas.
Date published: 2018-01-07
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