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PX280-15 Environmental Physics

Academic year
Undergraduate Level 2
Module leader
Michael Pounds
Credit value
Module duration
20 weeks
100% exam
Study location
University of Warwick main campus, Coventry
Introductory description

The laws of thermodynamics bound what useful work can be extracted from any source. There are also limits to what we can do to mitigate the effects of the resultant heat and waste products. Understanding which processes are under our control involves interesting physics as well environmental science, chemistry and social sciences.

Module web page

Module aims

To explain how energy is absorbed by, and moved around, the Earth both naturally and as a result of human intervention. The module will look at consequences for the environment of energy use and study electrical power production using core physics already covered in previous modules.

Outline syllabus

This is an indicative module outline only to give an indication of the sort of topics that may be covered. Actual sessions held may differ.

  1. Revision of the Carnot cycle and relation to maximum possible efficiency. Energy resources, estimated reserves and current consumption.
  2. Power transmission lines, three phase, transformers
  3. Power Stations: fossil fuel, nuclear (thermal and fast breeder, reprocessing), fusion (Lawson criteria, design concepts, inertial and magnetic confinement).
  4. Climates of the past and prediction of future climate change.
  5. The greenhouse effect, radiative forcing, feedbacks, climate sensitivity, and the carbon cycle.
  6. Simple climate change economics.
Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students should be able to:

  • Describe how electricity is generated in power stations (fossil fuel, nuclear, fusion-based) and by renewable sources and be able to explain what limits the output in all cases
  • Estimate transmission line losses and understand the role of transformers in power distribution
  • Describe climates of the past and understand how future climate change can be predicted
  • Explain the “greenhouse effect”, radiative forcing, feedbacks, and climate sensitivity
  • Understand simple climate change economics
Indicative reading list

Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, David J C Mackay, UIT, 2009
Environmental Physics, Egbert Boeker and Rienk Van Grondelle, Wiley, 2011
Global Warming, John Houghton, CUP, 2015
Introduction to Modern Climate Change, Andrew Dessler, CUP, 2016


The science of energy sourcing and use, and the techniques used to generate and transmit electrical power, are archetypical "inter-disciplines". There are issues arising from physics, engineering, politics, economics and costs to the environment. This module shows how to compare the efficiency, and economic and enivironmental costs, of how energy is used and of how electricity is generated.

Subject specific skills

Knowledge of mathematics and physics. Skills in modelling, reasoning, thinking.

Transferable skills

Analytical, communication, problem-solving, self-study

Study time

Type Required
Lectures 40 sessions of 1 hour (27%)
Private study 110 hours (73%)
Total 150 hours
Private study description

Working through lecture notes, solving problems, wider reading, discussing with others taking the module, revising for exam, practising on past exam papers


No further costs have been identified for this module.

You must pass all assessment components to pass the module.

Assessment group B
Weighting Study time
3 hour online examination (April) 100%

Answer 4 questions

Feedback on assessment

Personal tutor, group feedback

Past exam papers for PX280


This module is Option list A for:

  • Year 2 of UPXA-GF13 Undergraduate Mathematics and Physics (BSc)
  • Year 2 of UPXA-FG31 Undergraduate Mathematics and Physics (MMathPhys)
  • Year 2 of UPXA-F300 Undergraduate Physics (BSc)
  • Year 2 of UPXA-F303 Undergraduate Physics (MPhys)

This module is Option list B for:

  • Year 2 of UMAA-G105 Undergraduate Master of Mathematics (with Intercalated Year)
  • Year 2 of UMAA-G100 Undergraduate Mathematics (BSc)
  • Year 2 of UMAA-G103 Undergraduate Mathematics (MMath)
  • Year 2 of UMAA-G106 Undergraduate Mathematics (MMath) with Study in Europe
  • Year 2 of UMAA-G1NC Undergraduate Mathematics and Business Studies
  • Year 2 of UMAA-G1N2 Undergraduate Mathematics and Business Studies (with Intercalated Year)
  • Year 2 of UMAA-GL11 Undergraduate Mathematics and Economics
  • Year 2 of UMAA-G101 Undergraduate Mathematics with Intercalated Year