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(Course description last updated for academic year 2014-15).

Only IA-level physics is a prerequisite; those who have experience of solid-state physics will find some parts of the course more straightforward, but the material will be taught and examined in such a way that prior knowledge in this area is not required.

Learning Outcomes and Assessment

This interdisciplinary course looks at the physical issues concerning energy generation, storage and use. The course aims to develop skills in using simple physical estimates for a wide range of energy problems, while also looking in more detail at materials-based approaches to renewable energy.


Energy requirements and energy availability: Back-of-envelope models of energy consumption and production. Current and projected usage. Alternatives to fossil fuels: nuclear, wind, wave, tide, geothermal, solar.

Hydrogen and batteries: Hydrogen vs. electric vehicles. Generation and storage of hydrogen. Electrochemical principles. Batteries. Fuel cells.

Exergy: Heat engines, heat pumps. Exergy and exergy efficiency.

Heating and cooling: Practical heat pumps.  Combined heat and power.

Engines: The Otto cycle.  Stirling engines.

Solar energy: Sunlight, solar concentration, solar thermal. Scale of solar installations required.  Theoretical limits to conversion of solar energy.

Electronic structure of molecules and solids: Tight-binding band structure. Interaction with light. Excitons. Electrons and holes. Doping.

Inorganic semiconductor solar cells: The p-n junction. Photovoltaic operation. Cell design, materials and performance.

Molecular semiconductors: Materials and optical properties. Excitons. Marcus theory.  Photovoltaic devices: multilayers, bulk heterojunctions and dye-sensitised cells.

Advanced photovoltaics: Tandem cells.  Multiple exciton generation.

Photosynthesis: Structure and optoelectronic operation.  Charge separation and recombination.  Efficiency.  Biofuels.


Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air, Mackay D J C (UIT Cambridge 2009)

The Physics of Solar Cells, Nelson J (Imperial 2003)

Molecular Mechanisms of Photosynthesis, Blankenship R E (Blackwell 2002)