Online course in Nature & Environment

Understanding Biological Energy

Get an introduction to energy and explore how humans and other living things obtain and use their biological energy sources.

  • Duration 4 weeks
  • Weekly study 3 hours
  • Learn Free
  • Extra benefits From $59 Find out more

Discover applications of biological energy, from human energy to photosynthesis

On this course, you’ll learn what energy actually is and how living things acquire and convert it.

You’ll find out how biological energy is stored and released in fossil fuels and what advances in agriculture mean for feeding the world’s growing population.

As you explore biological energy in industry, you’ll consider the ways science can help us to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels as well as ways we might use and learn from plants to provide energy in the future.

You’ll also discover the concept of ‘energy overload’ and how it is threatening our bodies’ energy balance today.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsLiving things need energy. Everything they do needs energy. Organisms need it to move, to sense their environment, to reproduce, to grow. They need energy just to stay alive. But the way life gets and uses energy is complicated. Take humans, for instance. We store our food's chemical energy in an energy currency molecule, ATP, by a process called "cellular respiration." This metabolic pathway has dozens of steps and goes from biochemistry to physics and back again. The energy in our food comes from 93 million miles away in the form of sunlight, and is captured by plants in photosynthesis. I'm Dr. James McEvoy. I work in the Department of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway University of London.

Skip to 0 minutes and 56 secondsAnd I'm the designer and leader of this course in biological energy. If you enrol, you'll learn how respiration and photosynthesis work, gaining insight into the energetic principles that underlie these pathways. But biological energy isn't just about biochemistry. The last 200 years, and particularly the decades since the Second World War, have seen a biological energy boom. Our energy economy is based on fossil fuels-- ancient stores of photosynthetic energy. And they have changed our world. We've made fertilisers and grown new crop varieties that store more of the sun's energy in their grain-- the so-called "Green Revolution." While good news overall, many of us now suffer from too much biological energy.

Skip to 1 minute and 46 secondsBesides the environmental effects of fossil fuel use, there are human health effects, too, like obesity type 2 diabetes. But the story doesn't end there. The future of biological energy doesn't lie with fossil fuels, and the Green Revolution isn't finished. You'll learn how modern biotechnology and biofuels can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and how biology is inspiring renewable energy researchers in a warming world. Biological energy is a vital and wide ranging topic. And it will be as important in the future as it always has been. It's a fascinating journey, and I hope you can join me on it.

What topics will you cover?

  1. Introduction to energy: How living things use energy; A brief history of thermodynamics; Enthalpy, entropy and free energy
  2. Human energy: Humans as chemotrophs; Chemical energy from food; Mitochondria; ion gradients and ATP
  3. Photosynthesis: Green plants and autotrophic bacteria; Solar energy to food; Oxygenation and evolution
  4. Industrial energy: Fossil fuels; Biomass; Artificial photosynthesis

When would you like to start?

Most FutureLearn courses run multiple times. Every run of a course has a set start date but you can join it and work through it after it starts. Find out more

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you'll be able to...

  • Describe what energy is and how concepts of energy, enthalpy and entropy were developed
  • Summarise how humans obtain, convert and store energy
  • Describe oxygenic photosyntheis and its ecological significance
  • Compare biologically-derived energy sources, both renewable and non-renewable

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for young learners who have studied at least GCSE science (chemistry, biology, or physics) and are interested in pursuing the connections between these subjects.

It will be of particular interest to those looking to study the life sciences at university level.

The course is also suitable for those who are simply interested in how living things store and use energy.

Who will you learn with?

James McEvoy

James McEvoy

I teach and research biological chemistry in the Department of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London. Before that I taught in Denver, Colorado, and studied at Oxford and Yale.

Who developed the course?

Royal Holloway, University of London

Queen Victoria presided over the grand opening of Royal Holloway in 1886. Since then the College has continued to grow in size and status to become one of the top research-led institutions in the UK.

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