Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 3 sessions / week, 1 hour / session

Recitations: 1 session / week, 1 hour / session


Physics:  Physics I Classical Mechanics (8.01) and Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism (8.02)

Mathematics:  Single Variable Calculus (18.01) and Multivariable Calculus (18.02)

Chemistry:  Principles of Chemical Science (5.111 and 5.112) or Introduction to Solid State Chemistry (3.091)


The Physics of Energy is a new subject, offered for the first time in the Fall of 2008. The course is designed for MIT sophomores, juniors, and seniors who want to understand the fundamental laws and physical processes that govern the sources, extraction, transmission, storage, degradation, and end uses of energy.

The course is not aimed specifically at physics majors. It is designed for any MIT student, including, for example, an engineer, scientist, social scientist, or management, architecture or planning major, who wants to get a firm foundation in the physical principles that constrain the energy landscape. The course will enable students to approach energy issues in a sophisticated and scientific fashion, but without having to take advanced subjects in thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, or nuclear physics beforehand.

You may have heard about courses on the "Physics of Energy" offered at other universities. The ones we know of are aimed at non-scientists without a background in calculus or calculus-based physics. Because MIT undergraduates are so well prepared in mathematics and physics, we will present material at a considerably more advanced level. This should make the course more exciting (and more challenging). Much of the reading and background material for 8.21 is being created specifically for this course, since existing introductory books and resources on energy physics do not seem to be advanced enough for MIT undergraduates.


Part I - Energy and its Uses

  • Units and scales of energy use
  • Mechanical energy and transport
  • Heat energy: Conversion between heat and mechanical energy
  • Electromagnetic energy: Storage, conversion, transmission and radiation
  • Quantum mechanics I: Intro to the quantum, energy quantization
  • Energy in chemical systems and processes, flow of CO2
  • Entropy and temperature
  • Heat engines
  • Conversion I: Phase change energy conversion, refrigeration and heat pumps
  • Internal combustion engines
  • Conversion II: Steam and gas power cycles, the physics of power plants

Part II - Sources of Energy

  • Fundamental forces in the universe
  • Quantum mechanics II: Quantum mechanics relevant for nuclear physics
  • Nuclear I: Nuclear forces, energy scales and structure
  • Nuclear II: Nuclear binding energy systematics, reactions and decays
  • Nuclear III: Nuclear fusion
  • Nuclear IV: Nuclear fission and fission reactor physics
  • Nuclear V: Nuclear fission reactor design, safety, operation and fuel cycles
  • The flow of energy in the universe
  • Solar I: Solar radiation
  • Solar II: Absorption and thermal utilization
  • Solar III: Solar-thermal electricity
  • Solar IV: Photovoltaics
  • Solar V: Advanced PV, overview
  • Biological energy sources and fossil fuels
  • Wind I: Fluid dynamics and power in the wind, available resources
  • Wind II: More about fluids, viscosity, types of fluid flow, lift
  • Wind III: Wind turbine dynamics and design, wind farms
  • Geothermal power and ocean thermal energy conversion
  • Tidal/wave/hydro power

Part III - Systems and Synthesis

  • Nuclear radiation, fuel cycles, waste and proliferation
  • Climate change I
  • Climate change II
  • Climate change III
  • Energy storage
  • Energy conservation

Homework and Exams

Problem sets are issued weekly. There are two in-class exams and a final exam.


Problem sets 45%
The final exam 25%
Two in-class exams (15% each) 30%



Rather than follow the traditional format of theory followed by application, we will integrate fundamental physics with practical applications to energy systems of contemporary relevance throughout the semester. If you complete this subject you should be equipped with the technical tools and perspective to enable you to start to evaluate energy choices objectively and quantitatively both at a national policy and a personal level.

Additional Comments

  • This course will focus on the fundamental physical principles underlying energy processes, and on application of these principles to practical calculations. We will emphasize quantitative analysis and will introduce and apply many important analytical tools. It is not intended to be a survey course.
  • The course will focus on the physics. Tough political, economic, social, and ethical issues will have to be resolved if the "energy crisis" is to be ameliorated. Although they will not be discussed directly in the course, the course will provide the scientific foundation for intelligent evaluation of those important considerations.
  • If you are interested in studying any particular energy technology in great depth, you will want to take additional, more advanced subjects at MIT. Our hope is that this course will give you enough background to approach those subjects with a broad and functional perspective on the physics of energy.