The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained

Course No. 1363
Professor Michael E. Wysession, Ph.D.
Washington University in St. Louis
Share This Course
4.4 out of 5
67 Reviews
85% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 1363
Streaming Included Free

What Will You Learn?

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

Hide Full Description
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

Lecture Titles

Clone Content from Your Professor tab

What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Instant Video Includes:
  • 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
Video DVD
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

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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

Enjoy This Course On-the-Go with Our Mobile Apps!*

  • App store App store iPhone + iPad
  • Google Play Google Play Android Devices
  • Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Tablet + Firephone
*Courses can be streamed from anywhere you have an internet connection. Standard carrier data rates may apply in areas that do not have wifi connections pursuant to your carrier contract.

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...
Learn More About This Professor
Also By This Professor


The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 66.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from solid intro which informed me well huge subject; one of those things everyone thinks they are an expert on but really know very little; i found this very good and informative, good presentation, enjoyed the professor and the subject. recommended.
Date published: 2020-10-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent material and speaker Dr. Wysession is an excellent speaker, and the course is well organized and interesting. My only complaint is that the recording engineer turned down the treble when recording his speach so it'[s quite bass. Difficult to hear of those of us with poor high tones hearing.
Date published: 2020-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great information! Presented in easy to understand lectures. Very informative and interesting.
Date published: 2020-06-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Science of energy: Resources and Power explained Just purchased and am going through the course. I purchased based on Professor Wyession’s statement that the course was balance and unbiased. The majority of the course is, however I believe the topic on Carbon dioxide and climate change is extremely biased. If opposing science were presented with what the professor states, then it would be unbiased. There are a great many scientists turning away from the science portrayed here. It is only one side and highly agenda driven. The majority of the course is great. Sorry this one section seemed so out of touch with the rest re 2015 data compared to 2020!
Date published: 2020-04-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent survey, would like to an update. I think this course hits a good level for the "interested layperson". Its breadth is commendable. The professor is personable, informal. I listened to it while exercise hiking.
Date published: 2020-03-17
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Superficial and misleading presentation The instructor of this course is neither academically nor professionally qualified to present this course. His lack of knowledge of the field is especially evident in the section on nuclear power, but is evident as well in other portions of the lectures. From the style of the presentation, it struck me that his intended audience was middle-schoolers, not adults. A few specifics. He repeatedly stated that the heat production by nuclear fission was gamma rays. Well over 90 percent of the energy release by fission is kinetic energy of the particles released during the fission and subsequent decay of the fission products. In actuality, the small percentage of energy release in the form of gamma rays is mostly absorbed by structural materials and the reactor's biological shielding. The contribution it makes to generating steam is virtually zero. He states that nuclear waste is 'dangerous for millions of years.' The accurate statement would be that nuclear waste is radioactive for millions of years; but after 300 years, the amount of radioactivity in the waste is no greater than that of the ore that was mined to create the nuclear fuel. In other words, within a matter of centuries, the danger presented by the nuclear waste is no greater than the danger posed by Mother Nature, and in fact is less so because the radioactive material has been relocated from random locations in the crust to a place where there is no ground water to leach to and thousands of feet beneath the surface of the earth. He portrays the industry's handling of radioactive wastes by illustrating a haphazard pile of rusting waste drums. The illustration shown is so far from the truth that is qualifies as propaganda. What the photo likely shows is a holding area for discarded waste containers that are in the process of decontamination and eventual disposal as low-level radioactive waste, over-packed in a new container prior to burial. He states that the capacity factor of nuclear power is 'only two-thirds.' In actuality, the capacity factor of nuclear power is greater than 90 percent....the highest of any of the power sources he covered. He states the thermal efficiency of the internal combustion engine is 20 percent. Wrong again...the thermal efficiency of the diesel cycle is about 40 percent. The 20 percent efficiency is for that of the overall vehicle, including mechanical inefficiency of the transmission and drive train and aerodynamic friction. As a basic criticism of the course, the instructor neglected to present the fundamental truth behind any comparative analysis of energy source. That is, the more diffuse the energy source, the greater the amount of resource use will be necessary for producing a given amount of useful power. In all three of the college courses I've taken that specifically concentrated on comparative energy production technologies, that point was the first one made by the instructor. To give him credit, he did brush on that throughout the course, but his main emphasis was on land use, which is only a very small part of the total resource picture. Throughout the course, the emphasis was on the operational phase of the various energy production technologies. When disadvantages of the fabrication and construction phases were mentioned, they tended to be glossed over, and (other than for nuclear) the disadvantages of the demolition and disposal phase were rarely mentioned. In my opinion, this course should be withdrawn from the Great Courses' library. It does more harm to the energy debate than it does good.
Date published: 2020-03-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative and interesting course on energy In his course, The Science of Energy, Dr. Wysession provides a remarkably comprehensive explanation of energy production and storage technologies, both traditional and emerging, that includes their science, cost, practical considerations, and context in the changing landscape of energy production. His lectures deliver an amazing amount of information with a style and pace that keeps them interesting while being clear and understandable. His lecture on Carbon Dioxide is an extremely illuminating explanation of climate change and the scientific issues related to it. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2019-12-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and Based on The Facts of That Time This set of lectures was recorded in or about 2016 and the facts and figures cited were from 2012 to 2014. These lectures are not preachy on what we have done to our environment over the past 200 years via the energy industry. These lectures go into the history and basis for what we are doing and why we are doing it. The professor does not use emotional superficial sound-bites as to what to do, but gives us facts based on the information known at the time of this recording on what can realistically be done with some insight as to why things may not be being done at the rate people what them done. A main take-away is that while renewable energy is a good thing, we have the problem of dealing with an outdated or poorly thought out power grid system and no real way to store all of the electric being produced to satisfy off-peak usage. Another main take-away is that we will need a combination of sources to satisfy our needs because if there is no wind, there is no energy. Likewise, the sun does not always shine when we want it to, i.e., at night or on cloudy days. These two points also lead back to the need for a solid storage system. Overall, this course was informative as to facts, history, concepts, with a little bit of philosophy thrown in to help someone think past the surface of the issue.
Date published: 2019-12-10
  • y_2020, m_11, d_23, h_16
  • bvseo_bulk, prod_bvrr, vn_bulk_3.0.12
  • cp_1, bvpage1
  • co_hasreviews, tv_2, tr_64
  • loc_en_US, sid_1363, prod, sort_[SortEntry(order=SUBMISSION_TIME, direction=DESCENDING)]
  • clientName_teachco
  • bvseo_sdk, p_sdk, 3.2.0
  • CLOUD, getContent, 6.18ms

Questions & Answers

Customers Who Bought This Course Also Bought