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PX273 Physics of Electrical Power Generation

Lecturer: Vasily Kantsler
Weighting: 7.5 CATS

Power generation is a topical issue. This module introduces this topic from a physicist's perspective. It considers the conventional (coal/oil/gas) generation process in detail, before moving on to look at fission reactors. Various forms of renewable power are explored and the final part of the module looks at the potential of fusion.


To give a general introduction to power production from a physicist's perspective using core physics already covered in previous modules.


At the end of the module you should be able to:

  • describe the basic operation of a fossil fuel power station and the physics issues relating to its operation and efficiency.
  • estimate transmission line losses and understand the role of transformers in power distribution.
  • use energy conservation to assess the theoretical upper limits for wind, wave and hydro-electric power.
  • describe the chain reactions in a nuclear power station and explain the differences between, and benefits of, thermal versus fast breeder reactors.
  • use basic physics to estimate the voltage and power output from photo-voltaic cells.
  • explain the energy considerations encapsulated in the Lawson criteria and its implications for fusion power and explain the heating, confinement and tritium processing in proposed reactor designs.


  1. Energy resources, estimated reserves and current consumption.
  2. The Carnot cycle to determine maximum possible efficiency.
  3. Coal power stations, transformers, power transmission lines and three phase.
  4. Nuclear power both thermal and fast breeder. Reprocessing.
  5. Hydro-electric power. Conventional dams and Dinorwic.
  6. Wind and wave generators and estimates of maximum possible resource.
  7. Photo-voltaic cells.
  8. Fusion power, Lawson criteria, design concepts, inertial and magnetic confinement.

Commitment: about 18 Lectures

Assessment: 1 hour examination

This module has a home page.

Recommended Texts: Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air

Leads from: PX121 Thermal Physics I, PX120 Electricity and Magnetism