The Nature of Energy: How We Use and Store It to Power Our Everyday Lives

Susan Trammell, Associate Professor of Physics and Optical Science,
UNC Charlotte

What does a scientist mean by energy? How does a solar panel work? How and why does a nuclear reactor generate energy? In this seminar, we will explore different ways of generating energy. For each topic we will discuss the science behind the energy generation method and then discuss the cost, benefit and problems for using these methods to generate electricity. This seminar is appropriate for all teachers in grades K-12.

First we will explore the concept of energy – a fundamental idea in physics. This will include a discussion of the forms of energy (kinetic, potential, chemical, thermal, light and nuclear) and energy conservation (energy is never destroyed but can be converted from one type to another). We’ll need these ideas to talk about the other topics in the seminar. Next, we will talk about the ways we generate electricity today. We’ll start with coal-fired power plants. How much coal does it take to generate electricity for a city like Charlotte every day? We will also explore the basic operation of a nuclear reactor. This will include a description of nuclear fission reactions and radioactive decay. We will examine the nuclear accident in Japan  in 2011 and discuss the future of nuclear power.

Green energy – or renewable energy –  is an important topic of conversation today. We will discuss five types of green energy: hydropower, solar power, wind power, geothermal power and biomass. We will discuss the science behind each of these energy sources and the challenges of introducing these energy sources as major producers of electricity.

Participating Fellows