Dr Rob Wallach

This course introduces some of the diverse topics around sustainability and the future of the environment.  The aim is to raise awareness and discuss issues.  The course does not attempt to prescribe solutions as action will have to be tackled by those taking the course (and discussion by participants is an integral feature), as well as many, many others, both now and in the future for decades to come.

The focus in the first half of the course is to identify and explore various global issues that currently need to be addressed to ensure sustainability and so topics such as population, migration, health, cities, water, food and the digital age are included. Economic and biological aspects are not covered in any depth even though they too are complementary and equally essential in providing robust ways forward. Any student with interests in these areas would be warmly welcome to participate and to contribute. The second half of the course focuses on the need to provide sustainable energy, and alternative energy sources are introduced since decisions currently are being, and will need to continue to be, taken to replace conventional fossil fuels.   A breakdown of the lectures follows.

This course is aimed at: those who are concerned about the future of mankind and life on earth – as well as their own future – and who wish to gain greater awareness of, and to discuss, topical issues and possible ways to make improvements. The approach will be interactive so that those taking the course can contribute by sharing their own particular interests or concerns. The material included provides information on topics that increasingly are raised in public debates or in the media (especially in news and current affairs programmes), although not always with the necessary data or insights! Hence the course aims to provide background and knowledge in some key crucial areas pertaining to global sustainability. The approach on alternative energy is not primarily scientific or engineering in content but necessarily includes relevant considerations,

Pre-requisite knowledge required: is minimal. An open mind is needed together with a willingness to enjoy and be interested in exploring topical issues facing mankind.  It would be advantageous to be aware of the scientific approach (e.g. to at least high school chemistry and/or physics levels) but the course is NOT confined to those majoring in science or engineering and should be accessible to all.

Transferable Knowledge and Skills.  You will gain awareness of many of the current issues that are implicit in and/or which will be discussed at COP23, the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017.

In addition to the overviews provided in the lectures, the course structure involves participants working both independently and in small groups (typically pairs) to prepare topics that will be presented to and shared by the whole class in the tutorial sessions.  This is not dissimilar to the approaches used in the independent supervision option in PKP.  Hence individual interests can be explored, developed and shared.

Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)


1 Final Essay (2,500 – 3,000 words): 50%

1 Final Exam: 50%

Core Reading

Notes will be provided for all lectures

– For lectures 1 to 5: individual articles will be available via a Dropbox site

– For lectures 6 to 11:   MacKay D.J.C.    Sustainable Energy – without the hot air

UIT, Cambridge, England, 2009

Download from

Background Reading – individual articles will be available via a Dropbox site;

Lecture Breakdown

Lecture 1.  Population Changes and Earth’s Resources

  1. Population: growth
  2. Birth control and consequences
  3. Age demography and aging societies
  4. Quality of life and care (state and family)
  5. Migration and implications
  6. Earth’s resources and modelling the future

Lecture 2.  Water, Food and Health

  1. Water: purification and distribution
  2. Food: land use, genetic modifications, biodiversity
  3. Fertilisers and pesticides
  4. Preservatives and antibiotics
  5. Diets
  6. Health

Lecture 3.  Cities

  1. New demands and development
  2. Housing
  3. Transport
  4. Food management
  5. Recycling and waste
  6. Pollution – air quality

Lecture 4.  The Digital Age

  1. Information era
  2. Artificial intelligence and robotics
  3. Education and what is needed
  4. Employment and jobs
  5. Economy and economic models
  6. Poverty and social inequality

Lecture 5.  Global Warming and Energy

  1. Climate change ➔ global warming
  2. Energy sources and reserves
  3. Energy choices: renewables versus others
  4. Energy consumption
  5. Materials usage
  6. Carbon dioxide: control and trading

Lecture  6.  Solar Energy

  1. Direct versus indirect
  2. Direct: radiant heating
  3. Direct: photovoltaic conversion (solar cells: types, efficiencies and fabrication)
  4. Indirect: biomass and photosynthesis
  5. Biofuels: types, feedstock, reactions, synthesis

Lecture  7.  Wind and Water Power


  1. Wind energy potential
  2. Onshore versus offshore power
  3. Power available: input and output power
  4. Aerofoil design and materials used for rotors


  1. Hydropower: reaction and impulse turbines, power outputs
  2. River and wave energy: choices, power outputs and wave power devices
  3. Tidal flow and barrages: power available

Lecture  8.  Geothermal and Fracking


  1. Earth’s core and geothermal reservoirs
  2. Geothermal power plants
  3. Heat pumps

Fracking and Shale Gas Extraction

  1. Geological principles
  2. Approaches used
  3. Potential environmental impact and best practice

Lecture  9.  Nuclear Fission and Fusion

  1. Basis of nuclear energy: fission and fusion
  2. Fission reactors
  • components and reactor types
  • uranium production and processing
  1. Fusion reactors
  • energy confinement: tokamak versus internal confinement designs
  • ITER project
  • advantages over fission reactors
  1. Nuclear issues
  • material challenges
  • waste
  • accidents

Lecture 10.  Hydrogen Economy and Energy Storage

Hydrogen Economy

  1. Basis
  2. Hydrogen production
  3. Hydrogen storage


  1. Thermodynamics and kinetics
  2. Primary and secondary batteries
  3. Lithium batteries
  4. Fuel cells: principles and summary of main types

Lecture 11.  Conventional Power and Carbon Capture

  1. Fossil-fuelled power generation
  2. Gas emissions and cleaning
  3. Carbon capture and storage CCS

Lecture 12.  Future Sustainability – The Way Forward

  1. Summary of key issues

Materials Science contributions