Category Archives: energy science

Thermodynamics labs as homework

Many of my academic colleagues are thinking about modifying their undergraduate teaching for next academic year so that they are more resilient to coronavirus.  Laboratory classes present particular challenges when access and density of occupation are restricted.  However, if the purpose of laboratory classes is to allow students to experience phenomena, to enhance understanding, to develop intuition and to acquire skills in using equipment, making measurements and analysing data, then I believe this can achieved using practical exercises for homework.  I created practical exercises, that can be performed in a kitchen at home, as part of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about thermodynamics [See ‘Engaging learners on-line‘ on May 25th, 2016].  I have used the same exercises as part of my first year undergraduate module on thermodynamics for the past four years with similar levels of participation to those experienced by my colleagues who run traditional laboratory classes [see ‘Laboratory classes thirty years on‘ on May 15th, 2019].  I have had a number of enquiries from colleagues in other universities about these practical exercises and so I have decided to make the instruction sheets available to all.  Please feel free to use them to support your teaching.

The versions below are from the MOOC entitled ‘Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life‘ and provide information about where to obtain the small amount of equipment needed, and hence are self-contained.  Although the equipment only costs about £20, at the University of Liverpool, we lend our students a small bag of equipment containing a measuring beaker, a digital thermometer, a plug-in power meter and a plumber’s manometer.  I also use a slightly different version of these instructions sheets that provide information about ‘lab’ reports that students must submit as part of their coursework.

I reported on the initial introduction of blended learning and these practical exercises in Patterson EA, 2019, Using everyday examples to engage learners on a massive open online course, IJ Mechanical Engineering Education, 0306419018818551.

Instruction sheets for thermodynamics practical exercises as homework:

Energy balance using the first law of thermodynamics | Efficiency of a kettle

Ideal gas behaviour | Estimating the value of absolute zero

Overall heat transfer coefficient | Heat losses from a coffee cup & glass



Do you believe in an afterlife?

‘I believe that energy can’t be destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.  There’s more to life than we can conceive of.’ The quote is from the singer and songwriter, Corinne Bailey Rae’s answer to the question: do you believe in an afterlife? [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, October 26/27 2019].  However, the first part of her answer is the first law of thermodynamics while the second part resonates with Erwin Schrödinger’s view on life and consciousness [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016]. The garden writer and broadcaster, Monty Don gave a similar answer to the same question: ‘Absolutely.  I believe that the energy lives on and is connected to place.  I do have this idea of re-joining all of my past dogs and family on a summer’s day, like a Stanley Spencer painting.’ [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, January 18/19 2020].  The boundary between energy and mass is blurry because matter is constructed from atoms and atoms from sub-atomic particles, such as electrons that can behave as particles or waves of energy [see ‘More uncertainty about matter and energy‘ on August 3rd 2016].  Hence, the concept that after death our body reverts to a cloud of energy as the complex molecules of our anatomy are broken down into elemental particles is completely consistent with modern physics.  However, I suspect Rae and Don were going further and suggesting that our consciousness lives on in some form. Perhaps through some kind of unified mind that Schrödinger thought might exist as a consequence of our individual minds networking together to create emergent behaviour.  Schrödinger found it utterly impossible to form an idea about how this might happen and it seems unlikely that an individual mind could ever do so; however, perhaps the more percipient amongst us occasionally gets a hint of the existence of something beyond our individual consciousness.

Reference: Erwin Schrodinger, What is life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Image: ‘Sunflower and dog worship’ by Stanley Spencer, 1937 @

Isolated systems in nature?

Is a coconut an isolated thermodynamic system?  This is a question that I have been thinking about this week.  A coconut appears to be impermeable to matter since its milk does not leak out and it might be insulated against heat transfer because its husk is used for insulation in some building products.  If you are wondering why I am pondering such matters, then it is because, once again, I am teaching thermodynamics to our first year students (see ‘Pluralistic Ignorance‘ on May 1st, 2019).  It is a class of more than 200 students and I am using a blended learning environment (post on 14th November 2018) that combines lectures with the units of the massive open online course (MOOC) that I developed some years ago (see ‘Engaging learners on-line‘ on May 25th, 2016).  However, before devotees of MOOCs get excited, I should add that the online course is neither massive nor open because we have restricted it to our university students.  In my first lecture, I talked about the concept of defining the system of interest for thermodynamic analysis by drawing boundaries (see ‘Drawing boundaries‘ on December 19th, 2012).  The choice of the system boundary has a strong influence on the answers we will obtain and the simplicity of the analysis we will need to perform.  For instance, drawing the system boundary around an electric car makes it appear carbon neutral and very efficient but including the fossil fuel power station that provides the electricity reveals substantial carbon emissions and significant reductions in efficiency.  I also talked about different types of system, for example: open systems across whose boundaries both matter and energy can move; closed systems that do not allow matter to flow across their boundaries but allow energy transfers; and, isolated systems that do not permit energy or matter to transfer across their boundaries.  It is difficult to identify closed systems in nature (see ‘Revisiting closed systems in nature‘ on October 5th, 2016); and so, once again I asked the students to suggest candidates but then I started to think about examples of isolated systems.  I suspect that completely isolated systems do not exist; however, some systems can be approximated to the concept and considering them to be so, simplifies their analysis.  However, I am happy to be corrected if anyone can think of one!

Image: CC BY 2.0

Thought leadership in fusion engineering

The harnessing of fusion energy has become something of a holy grail – sought after by many without much apparent progress.  It is the energy process that ‘powers’ the stars and if we could reproduce it on earth in a controlled environment then it would offer almost unlimited energy with very low environmental costs.  However, understanding the science is an enormous challenge and the engineering task to design, build and operate a fusion-fuelled power station is even greater.  The engineering difficulties originate from the combination of two factors: the emergent behaviour present in the complex system and that it has never been done before.  Engineering has achieved lots of firsts but usually through incremental development; however, with fusion energy it would appear that it will only work when all of the required conditions are present.  In other words, incremental development is not viable and we need everything ready before flicking the switch.  Not surprisingly, engineers are cautious about flicking switches when they are not sure what will happen.  Yet, the potential benefits of getting it right are huge; so, we would really like to do it.  Hence, the holy grail status: much sought after and offering infinite abundance.

Last week I joined the search, or at least offered guidance to those searching, by publishing an article in Royal Society Open Science on ‘An integrated digital framework for the design, build and operation of fusion power plants‘.  Working with colleagues at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, Richard Taylor and I have taken our earlier work on an integrated nuclear digital environment for the nuclear energy using fission [see ‘Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering?‘ on january 28th, 2015] and combined it with the hierarchical pyramid of testing and simulation used in the aerospace industry [see ‘Hierarchical modelling in engineering and biology‘ on March 14th, 2018] to create a framework that can be used to guide the exploration of large design domains using computational models within a distributed and collaborative community of engineers and scientists.  We hope it will shorten development times, reduce design and build costs, and improve credibility, operability, reliability and safety.  It is a long list of potential benefits for a relatively simple idea in a relatively short paper (only 12 pages).  Follow the link to find out more – it is an open access paper, so it’s free.


Patterson EA, Taylor RJ & Bankhead M, A framework for an integrated nuclear digital environment, Progress in Nuclear Energy, 87:97-103, 2016.

Patterson EA, Purdie S, Taylor RJ & Waldon C, An integrated digital framework for the design, build and operation of fusion power plants, Royal Society Open Science, 6(10):181847, 2019.