Mr. Rogers' IB Physics Topics

Syllabus 1st Quarter 2nd Quarter 3rd Quarter 4th Quarter IB Objectives
Core Thermo HL Thermo Core Energy Core Waves HL Waves HL Digital Tech 
Opt SL/HL EM Waves Opt SL/HL Com Core Nuclear HL Nuclear Opt HL Relativity Opt HL Medical

The above IB topics are not all inclusive but are needed to meet the IB standards not addressed by the AP Physics C curriculum.


Topic 8

IB Physics Standards: Items directly related to the standards are shown in blue

Topic 8: Energy, power and climate change


Essential Question: Assuming no friction, is it possible to convert heat into mechanical energy with 100% efficiency?

Energy degradation and power generation

  1. State that thermal energy may be completely converted to work in a single process, but that continuous conversion of this energy into work requires a cyclical process and the transfer of some energy from the system. Place a leak-proof friction free piston at the center of a perfectly insulated infinitely long cylinder, so that there is gas trapped behind the piston. Continuously heat the trapped gas so that it maintains a constantly elevated pressure that pushes the piston forward; 100% of the heat energy could be converted into work. However, in the real world, at some point the piston reaches the end of the cylinder. The high pressure gas has to be released from the cylinder--essentially dumping the energy contained in it--and work then has to be done to return the piston to its original position so that the cycle can be repeated. With a continuous cycle, 100% of the heat energy can NEVER be converted to work.

  2. Explain what is meant by degraded energy. When thermal energy is converted to mechanical or electrical energy, part of the thermal energy has to be expelled into the environment. This energy is considered degraded. Degraded energy still exists but essentially can no longer be converted into mechanical or electrical energy. In other words, degraded energy can no longer do work.

Of course, the degraded energy could, in theory, be sent through another heat engine and then its degraded energy sent through yet another an infinitum, but each time the degraded energy is expelled it has to be expelled to a lower temperature. To convert 100% of the thermal energy into mechanical energy would require that the last heat engine in the series would have to expel its energy at a temperature of absolute zero--an impossibility.

Heat engine: Heat engines are devices used to continuously convert thermal energy into mechanical energy. Steam engines, gas turbines, internal combustion engines in cars, and diesel engines are all heat engines. If thermal energy could be continuously transferred into a gas making it expand and  push a piston in an infinitely-long friction-free cylinder, 100% of the thermal energy could theoretically be converted into mechanical energy. In the real world however all heat engines must go through a thermodynamic cycle that results in part of the input heat being expelled to the environment.

Carnot efficient: is the maximum theoretical efficiency a friction-free heat engine could have. It's always less than 100% and for real heat engines may be less than 80%. Add friction and other losses and the actual efficiency is typically less than 50%.


Essential Question: How does the world power itself?
  1. Construct and analyze energy flow diagrams (Sankey diagrams) and identify where the energy is degraded.The above Sankey diagram above shows the energy flows through a steam engine. Ein represents the heat put into the heat engine and Eout the work output. The energy flows identified as lost energy are no longer available for doing work and are hence degraded energy. As can be seen in the illustration, most of the energy input into a heat engine becomes degraded energy.

  2. Outline the principal mechanisms involved in the production of electrical power.

  • source of heat: usually coal or nuclear but could be solar or geothermal

  • heat engine: converts thermal energy to mechanical energy (work)

  • alternator: converts mechanical energy to electrical energy.

  • transmission/distribution system: sends electrical energy to end users


Essential Question: How does the world power itself?

World energy sources

  1. Identify different world energy sources and the relative proportions of different energy sources that are available.


Essential Question: Why is electrical energy so useful?
  1. Explain why, for humanity, electrical energy is the most useful form, followed by mechanical. Explain why electrical energy is also the most expensive in terms of the total energy and equipment required to produce it.

The ability to do useful work and or carry information increases as a quantity of energy moves higher on the energy pyramid. For thermal energy, a higher level on the pyramid represents a higher temperature and, hence, a higher possible Carnot efficiency for conversion to the mechanical energy.

When attempting to convert a quantity of energy to a form that's higher on the energy usefulness pyramid, invariably a large amount will be degraded. This degraded energy still exists but is in thermal form at such a low level on the pyramid that it essentially can never move to a higher level. Going down the pyramid is another matter: 90% or more of electrical energy can be converted directly to mechanical form and 100% to thermal, 100% of mechanical energy can be converted to thermal form, and 100% of high level (thermal energy at a high temperature) can be converted to low level thermal energy (thermal energy at a low temperature).



  1. Outline and distinguish between renewable and non-renewable energy sources.

Source Original Source Available Supply Type Available  
wind turbine present-day Sun lifetime of Sun mechanical, generally converted to electrical Heating of the Earth's surface causes temperature gradients and density differences in the atmosphere resulting in winds. Conceivably, the entire Earth's surface acts as a solar collector for generating wind. Energy contained in wind increases with the square of the velocity. Strong winds represent a concentrated form of solar energy. Since windmills are "vertical collectors", they tend to require less land area than traditional forms of solar collectors..

photovoltaic cell

present-day Sun lifetime of Sun electrical Available power limited by the area of the collector system that's ultimately limited by available land area. While photovoltaic cells are not limited by Carnot efficiency, they tend to have low efficiencies for converting sunlight into electrical energy.

solar heating panel

present-day Sun lifetime of Sun thermal, low temperature. Due to relatively low temperature, this is generally used only for space and water heating. Available heat is limited by the area of the collector system that's ultimately limited by available land area.
solar concentrated present-day Sun lifetime of Sun thermal, generally converted to electrical Mirrors are used to concentrate solar energy in a small area thereby boosting temperatures substantially. This improves the efficiency of the heat engine used for converting the energy to electrical energy. Available power is limited by the area of the collector system that's ultimately limited by available land area.
hydro present-day Sun lifetime of Sun mechanical generally converted to electrical Energy is stored in the water as gravitational potential energy, hence the height of the dam is a major factor and helps limit the number of potential hydro sites
tidal orbital motions of Earth and Moon millions of years mechanical, generally converted to electrical The available energy is directly proportional to the change in height of the tide. In most areas the change in height of the water level with changing tide is so small that it would require a huge area to gain any useful energy.
geothermal (volcanic activity) volcanic activity Thousands of years + thermal, often converted to electrical Few usable sites are available
fossil fuels ancient Sun hundreds of years thermal  
fission (uranium) formation of Solar Syst. hundreds of years thermal  
fusion (hydrogen) formation of  Universe millions of years thermal  



Essential Question: Why is energy density such an important issue?
  1. Define the energy density of a fuel.

Forms of Stored Energy

Type of energy storage Energy density by mass (Mj/kg) Energy density by volume (Mj/l) Renewable Comments
  hydrogen gas (burned in air) 143 0.01079 storage* There's no source of free hydrogen. More energy is needed to produce the hydrogen than can be recovered from it. Hydrogen must be highly compressed or liquefied to qualify as a transportation fuel.

When hydrogen is burned in a heat engine, the usable energy is limited by Carnot efficiency. When hydrogen is consumed in a fuel cell, the efficiency can be higher.

  hydrogen gas compressed at 700 bar = 10,200 psi (burned in air) 143 5.6 storage* Compressing hydrogen to 10,200 psi involves a significant amount of energy. At these pressures, catastrophic failure of the storage tank or even a leak is extremely dangerous.
  coal anthracite 32.5 72.4 no Its high energy density reduces the cost of shipping from the mine to the power plant
  gasoline 46.4 34.2 no Excellent as a transportation fuel because of its high energy density and the speed of refilling its storage tank. However, usable energy is typically limited by Carnot efficiency since gasoline is usually used in heat engines.
  diesel fuel 46.2 37.3 no Excellent as a transportation fuel because of its high energy density and the speed of refilling its storage tank.. However, usable energy is limited by Carnot efficiency.
  natural gas (compressed) 53.6 10 no Lowest CO2 emissions of all fossil fuels. The primary component is methane
  methane (1.013bar, 15°C, from organic source) 55.6 0.0378 yes Here methane is produced by the anaerobic digestion (by bacteria) of organic waste such as manure. (Methane is also the key component of natural gas, described above.)
  ethanol 30 24 yes Typically produced from corn or sugarcane.
  methanol 19.7 15.6 storage* The energy stored in methanol is not renewable when made from fossil fuels like natural gas but is renewable when made from biomass.

biodiesel (vegetable oil)

42.20 33 yes Biodiesel is very inexpensive when made from waste cooking oil but the supply is then highly limited.
  body fat 38 35 yes Similar in energy storage to gasoline.
  TNT 4.610 6.92 storage* Surprisingly, has only about 1/10 the energy per kilogram as gasoline.
  Water @ 100 m dam height 0.001 0.001 storage* Rain water collecting behind a dam is renewable. In pumped storage schemes, water is pumped from a lower reservoir to a higher one at night using excess electric generating capacity. The water is then released, as needed, the next day to generate electricity for spikes in demand. Pumped storage is a very efficient form of energy storage since it is not limited by Carnot efficiency.
  Clock Spring 0.0003 0.0006 storage*  
  lead acid batteries 0.14 0.36 storage*  
  lithium ion battery 0.46-0.54 0.83-0.9 storage* Gasoline has an energy density nearly 100 times higher. Furthermore, a gas-tank can be refilled about 100 times faster than a battery can be recharged. However, energy removal from a battery is not limited by Carnot efficiency.
  ultracapacitor 0.0206 0.050 storage* Can be charged and discharged almost instantaneously.  A great choice of energy storage for regenerative braking and quick acceleration. Ultra capacitors will likely be used in combination with batteries.

* These are forms of energy storage. Whether they are renewable or not depends on whether the energy stored in them came from a renewable source.


  1. Discuss how choice of fuel is influenced by its energy density.

For transportation applications energy density is a major consideration. It determines the following for a vehicle:

  • size  - energy density by volume is key here.

  • mass - the higher the energy density the lower the mass when the fuel supply is fully loaded.

  • acceleration - While energy density is not the only consideration, anything that increases mass tends to decrease acceleration.

  • range - the higher the energy density, the greater the range or number of miles driven for a given fuel capacity.

  • fuel efficiency - While energy density is not the only consideration or even the main consideration, anything that increases mass will tend to lower fuel efficiency (miles traveled per unit of fuel), especially in stop and go driving, because the higher mass vehicle will take more energy to accelerate.

  1. Discuss the relative advantages and disadvantages of various energy sources.


Essential Question: What are the pros and cons of fossil fuels ?

Fossil fuel power production

  1. Outline the historical and geographical reasons for the widespread use of fossil fuels.

  2. Discuss the energy density of fossil fuels with respect to the demands of power stations.

  3. Discuss the relative advantages and disadvantages associated with the transportation and storage of fossil fuels.

Fossil Fuel Storage Distribution  to customer Transport from well/mine to distribution network
natural gas pressurized tanks: These have thick walls and are relatively expensive to build. To get a higher density (thus reducing tank size) natural gas is often liquefied. This requires cryogenic temperatures and specialized materials.
  • pipeline these operate with relatively high pressures and although generally safe, have caused major disasters when they've ruptured. all pipelines suffer from right-of-way and land use issues.
  • Across oceans: Due to low energy density cryogenic storage on tanker type ships is required.
  • Across land: pipeline
propane pressurized tanks: These have thick walls and are relatively expensive to build.
  • truck
butane pressurized tanks: These have thick walls and are relatively expensive to build.
  • truck
gasoline atmospheric pressure tanks: These have thin walls and are relatively inexpensive to build.
  • pipeline
  • truck
diesel / fuel oil atmospheric pressure tanks: These have relatively thin walls and are relatively inexpensive to build.
  • pipeline
  • truck
coal piles: requires no tank, just some land area essentially no expense to build
  • Railroad
  • slurry pipeline--consumes large quantities of water
  • truck


  1. State the overall efficiency of power stations fuelled by different fossil fuels.

  2. Describe the environmental problems associated with the recovery of fossil fuels and use such as electricity generation, transportation, and heating.


Type Definition / Significance Origen

Air Pollution

CO2 A major exhaust component from burning fossil fuels is also a greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming. use
Ground level ozone Ozone in the upper atmosphere helps reduce the amount of harmful UV reaching Earth from the sun. However, at ground level ozone is a major health hazard. use
NOx (pronounced knocks) When burning a fossil fuel using air, a small amount nitrogen will combine with oxygen forming various nitrogen oxides. Low level ozone is formed when NOx and  VOCs react in the presents of ultraviolet light (from sunlight). Low level ozone is a major lung irritant.

Note that NOx is also naturally formed by lightning. Here, however, the NOx generally dissolves in rain water and acts as a type of nitrogen fertilizer.

Particulates Dust or smoke particles in the air. Particulates reduce visibility and are a lung irritant. use
SOx (pronounced socks) Various sulfur oxides are formed when sulfur containing fossil fuels are burned. SOx comes primarily from high sulfur coal burning and is a major cause of acid rain. use
VOC VOCs  or volatile organic compounds refer to fossil fuel components that evaporate or escape into the air. VOCs react with NOx in the presents of sun light producing smog and ground level ozone a major lung irritant. VOCs themselves can create significant health problems. For example, benzene is a major carcinogen (cancer causing compound), is volatile, and present at about 9% in gasoline. Some types of VOCs such as methane can act as powerful greenhouse gasses. recovery and use

A fog-like combination of all forms of visible air pollution.


Ground and Surface Water / Soil Contamination

Heavy Metals

mercury emissions

  recovery and use
Organic compounds   recovery and use
Destruction of Habitat and Land Use Issues
Solid waste Ash from coal burning can be radioactive (low level)  and contain heavy metals. It often ends up in land fills. recovery and use
Strip Mining   recovery
Land Subsidence   recovery


Essential Question: What are the pros and cons of nuclear power?

Non-fossil fuel power production

  1. Describe how neutrons produced in a fission reaction may be used to initiate further fission reactions (chain reaction).

  • low-energy neutrons (≈ 1 eV) favor nuclear fission.

  • critical mass.

  1. Describe what is meant by fuel enrichment. Increasing the proportion of 235U vs. 238U. Only 235U is useful in man-made fission reactions.

  2. Describe the main energy transformations that take place in a nuclear power station.

fission (some mass converts to energy)heatworkelectricity

  1. Discuss the role of the moderator and the control rods in the production of controlled fission in a thermal fission reactor.
  2. Discuss the role of the heat exchanger in a fission reactor.
  3. Describe how neutron capture by a nucleus of uranium 238 (238U) results in the production of a nucleus of plutonium 239 (239Pu).

\mathrm{^{238}_{\ 92}U\ +\ ^{1}_{0}n\ \longrightarrow \ ^{239}_{\ 92}U\ \xrightarrow[23.5 \ min]{\beta^-} \ ^{239}_{\ 93}Np\ \xrightarrow[2.3565 \ d]{\beta^-} \ ^{239}_{\ 94}Pu}
  1. Describe the importance of plutonium 239 (239Pu) as a nuclear fuel.239Pu is naturally produced in current nuclear reactors. Most is consumed as the reactors run, increasing energy output by about 1/3. 239Pu produced from 238U makes the otherwise useless 238U into a nuclear fuel.

  2. Discuss safety issues and risks associated with the production of nuclear power.

  • the possibility of thermal meltdown and how it might arise

  • problems associated with nuclear waste

  • problems associated with the mining of uranium

  • nuclear power programs may be used to produce weapons

  • current supplies are limited to about 200 years at current rates of consumption. Fission reactors generate about 15% of the world's electricity production. If these reactors generated 100% of the world's electricity, the supply would last about 30 years.

  1. Outline the problems associated with producing nuclear power using nuclear fusion. Fusion requires extremely high temperatures--there is no technology available for containing materials at these temperatures.


Essential Question: What are the pros and cons of renewable power?

Solar power

  1. Distinguish between a photovoltaic cell and a solar heating panel.

  2. Outline reasons for seasonal and regional variations in the solar power incident per unit area of the Earth’s surface.

  3. Solve problems involving specific applications of photovoltaic cells and solar heating panels.

Hydroelectric power

  1. Distinguish between different hydroelectric schemes.

  • water storage in lakes

  • tidal water storage

  • pump storage.
  1. Describe the main energy transformations that take place in hydroelectric schemes. solar energy (evaporates water that falls as rain) gravitational potential energyworkelectricity

  2. Solve problems involving hydroelectric schemes.


Wind power

  1. Outline the basic features of a wind generator.

  2. Determine the power that may be delivered by a wind generator, assuming that the wind kinetic energy is completely converted into mechanical kinetic energy, and explain why this is impossible.

  3. Solve problems involving wind power.


Wave power

  1. Describe the principle of operation of an oscillating water column (OWC) ocean-wave energy converter.

  2. Determine the power per unit length of a wavefront, assuming a rectangular profile for the wave.

  3. Solve problems involving wave power.



Essential Question: Is global warming/climate disruption avoidable?

Greenhouse effect

Solar radiation

  1. Calculate the intensity of the Sun’s radiation incident on a planet.

  2. Define albedo. The ratio of reflected sunlight from the surface to incident sunlight.
  3. State factors that determine a planet’s albedo (especially for Earth).
  • season

  • cloud formation--Clouds tend to have a high albedo and reflect sunlight back into outer space during the day, hence cooling Earth's surface. At night clouds block infrared radiation from being radiated into outer space this tends to prevent the surface from cooling down.

  • surface characteristics: sand, snow (high value), Oceans (low value),etc.

  • latitude.

  • global annual mean albedo is 0.3 (30%) on Earth.


The greenhouse effect

  1. Describe the greenhouse effect.
  2. Identify the main greenhouse gases and their sources.

  • The gases to be considered are CH4, H2O, CO2 and

  • N2O. It is sufficient for students to know that each

  • has natural and man-made origins.
  1. Explain the molecular mechanisms by which greenhouse gases absorb infrared radiation.

Students should be aware of the role played by

resonance. The natural frequency of oscillation

of the molecules of greenhouse gases is in the infrared region

  1. Analyze absorption graphs to compare the relative effects of different greenhouse gases.

  2. Outline the nature of black-body radiation.

  3. Draw and annotate a graph of the emission spectra of black bodies at different temperatures.

  4. State the Stefan–Boltzmann law and apply it to compare emission rates from different surfaces.

  5. Apply the concept of emissivity to compare the emission rates from the different surfaces.

  6. Define surface heat capacity Cs.
  • Surface heat capacity is the energy required to raise

  • the temperature of unit area of a planet’s surface by

  • one degree, and is measured in J m–2 K–1.
  1. Solve problems on the greenhouse effect and the heating of planets using a simple energy balance climate model.

A planet’s temperature over a period of time is given


(incoming radiation intensity –outgoing radiation

intensity) × time / surface heat capacity.

Students should be aware of limitations of the

model and suggest how it may be improved.

Aim 7: A spreadsheet should be used to show a

simple climate model. Computer simulations could

be used to show more complex models (see OCC

for details).

Global warming

  1. Describe some possible models of global warming.

a range of models includes the following factors:

  • greenhouse gases in the atmosphere

  • increased solar flare activity

  • cyclical changes in the Earth’s orbit

  • volcanic activity

  1. State what is meant by the enhanced greenhouse effect. -- caused by human activity

  2. Identify the increased combustion of fossil fuels as the likely major cause of the enhanced greenhouse effect. They cause carbon dioxide emissions

  3. Describe the evidence that links global warming to increased levels of greenhouse gases.

international ice core research produces evidence of atmospheric composition and mean global temperatures over thousands of years (ice cores up to 420,000 years have been drilled in the Russian Antarctic base, Vostok).

  1. Define coefficient of volume expansion.
  2. State that one possible effect of the enhanced greenhouse effect is a rise in mean sea-level.
  3. Outline possible reasons for a predicted rise in mean sea-level.

precise predictions are difficult to make due to factors such as:

  • anomalous expansion of water

  • different effects of ice melting on sea water compared to ice melting on land.
  1. Identify climate change as an outcome of the enhanced greenhouse effect.

  2. Solve problems related to the enhanced greenhouse effect.

  • Problems could involve volume expansion,

  • specific heat capacity

  • latent heat.

  1. Identify some possible solutions to reduce the enhanced greenhouse effect.

  • greater efficiency of power production

  • replacing coal and oil with natural gas

  • combined heating and power systems (CHP)

  • renewable energy sources and nuclear power

  • carbon dioxide capture and storage
  • use of hybrid vehicles.
  1. Discuss international efforts to reduce the enhanced greenhouse effect.

These should include, for example:

• Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

• Kyoto Protocol

• Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (APPCDC).



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