Gaining an Understanding of Energy

All living things need energy. Energy is needed to sustain life, keep us warm and provide growth. Without energy, all living things would die. As more and more people live on the earth, there is a greater demand on the world's resources and the quest for new energy sources becomes more urgent. One of the most important tasks for engineers and scientists is to discover how to supply people with enough energy for now and into the future.

A two pronged approach must be made, consisting of both energy conservation as well as providing a "mix" of energy sources to minimise harm to our environment (for example global warming).

Oil Rig

This picture shows an oil rig in Texas. As we know, there is a great dependence on fossil fuels in our modern society. Oil is a non renewable resource and we have reached or are about to reach 'peak oil'.

Student Task

Student Task

What is meant by the term "peak oil"? How many years of oil use is there left in the world? What do you think will happen to society and world economies when oil starts running out? What will be some possible scenarios? Research this and write an essay answering the above questions. Teacher may direct class discussion.

Energy can do things for us

Food is required for us to do work. We can ride our bikes, lift and throw objects, climb hills and run around on a football field. Energy from food is stored and released so we can do all these and other physical activities.

Animals were used to pull ploughs and haul logs in order to make early man's life easier. Machines were invented so they could do even more work for us. The invention of simple machines such as pulleys, levers and the wheel expanded human activity and gave people more control over their environment.

These inventions were important, but the work that they could do was still limited by the human or animal energy input.

The 'Principle of Conservation of Energy', tells us that the energy or work output of a machine can never exceed the energy input, because there are energy losses in the form of heat and sound.

The use of fire has played a significant role in mankind's survival and development. Fire was the first new source of energy that we learnt to use to our benefit. In mankind's early history, it provided heat and warmth, light during the dark nights and allowed for an increase in the range of food through cooking.


Fire has many benefits as a source of heat and light energy. It is fun to sit around a camp fire and have a 'yarn' and wonder at the stars above. For early man, fire was essential to survival. The 'ingredients' for a fire is fuel (wood, coal, and coke), oxygen and sufficient heat.

It was only more recently that we used the energy released from fire to drive engines which 'ran on steam'. By 1712 Thomas Newcomen had built a steam engine with a piston in a cylinder, and by the 1760's, James Watt had converted the up and down motion of a piston into rotational motion.

Mankind had now learnt to use fire to drive machines. This was a breakthrough in the use of energy. By burning coal, people could extract chemical energy from the coal to produce steam to make machines do work. This heralded in the start of the 'industrial revolution' of the late 18th century.


There were many different steam machines used in the industrial revolution, for all sorts of manufacturing processes and transport.

Student Task

Student Task

The Industrial Revolution was a period of rapid change in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. To gain an understanding of this period of social and economic change, use the suggested resources below and answer the questions.

What was the Industrial Revolution in Britain and Europe?
For an introduction to the topic, use an online encyclopaedia. Access an online encyclopaedia such as Britannica Online or World Book Online via your school Library Resources page. Alternatively, use a free online encyclopaedia such as Wikipedia, Encarta or Reference. Use the search term 'Industrial Revolution'. The article will begin with an introduction and overview of the topic. The hyperlinked words will enable you to link to further information related to the topic and the table of contents will enable you to access specific information.

Research and list some steam engines which were invented during the Industrial Revolution - include pictures or drawings. For what purposes were these machines made?
Use the links provided above or the following resources to find more information:

How did the Industrial Revolution make life easier for some people?
Use the links provided above or the following resource to find more information:

What are some lessons we can learn from studying the Industrial Revolution?
Some would argue that we would all be better off if the Industrial Revolution had not occurred, because of the enormous costs in human terms. Small villages whose populations had inherited a way of life that had been stable for many generations were suddenly transformed by rapid change. Cottage industries declined and craftsmen's goods were replaced by cheaper, factory produced items. Families were separated as people moved to rapidly expanding and heavily polluted industrial cities to find work. Many found work in factories where conditions were gruelling: the hours were long, the pay was barely sufficient to survive on, and some of the equipment was dangerous. Workplace accidents were common in coalmines which expanded rapidly to meet the demand for fuel. The demand for raw materials (such as cotton) saw the slave trade flourish and appalling abuses of human rights. Access the links below to answer these important questions.

How did the slave trade contribute to Britain's prosperity? How did this exploitation end? Abolition of the Slave Trade 1807 Parliament and the British Slave Trade 1600 - 1807

This is, of course, just one side of the story and it ignores the many benefits of advances in science, medicine and technology that we enjoy today in developed nations. While our ancestors' lives were changed forever, we now face new and immediate challenges because of the depletion of non-renewable resources upon which we have become dependent. How should we meet these challenges? What responsibilities do we have for the welfare of people in developing nations, whose standard of living is well below our own? How can we assist them to improve their lives in ways that are empowering and sustainable? These are some of the questions that further activities within this website invite you to consider and explore.

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