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Energy, the environment and physics

12 March 2013
Martijn Oudshoorn
Martijn Oudshoorn

The Energy and Sustainability specialization in the Physics Bachelor’s programme at the University of Groningen was introduced in 2010. It is a full physics programme with special emphasis on energy, energy production and the consequences for the environment. The first students in this specialization will graduate this year.

The first-year student

Martijn Oudshoorn started his Bachelor’s programme in Physics this year, and has chosen to specialize in Energy and Sustainability.

‘The Energy and Sustainability specialization already caught my attention when I heard about it at the University Open Day. Energy is all around you. Particle physics is interesting too, but somewhat less tangible.’ In January, the first-year students were given the opportunity to visit different research groups in preparation for their choice of specialization in the Bachelor’s programme in Physics. ‘I did visit other groups, but felt most drawn to energy.’ Alongside the regular Physics curriculum, Martijn will now study subjects such as geothermal energy, nuclear energy and climate. ‘It gets you thinking about what sustainable energy really is. And how we can use it.’

One lecture Martijn clearly remembers was on the effect of energy production on the climate. ‘It was much more complicated than I had thought. You get amplifying and dampening effects. The physics behind it is really fascinating, like the energy spectra that certain greenhouse gases absorb.’ Although graduation is still a long way off, scientific research in this field strikes him as very interesting. ‘Such research has a social impact, after all.’

Harro Meijer
Harro Meijer

The lecturer

Professor Harro Meijer is a lecturer in the Energy and Sustainability specialization, and was one of its founders. He is also director of the Energy and Sustainability Research Institute Groningen (ESRIG).

‘It’s now the third year that I’m teaching the Energy and Sustainability specialization. A couple of third-year students are doing their Bachelor’s research project in my lab.’ Meijer’s main motivation to start this specialization was the need for highly trained people. ‘Energy is the big issue for the twenty-first century.’

There was also the idea that it might attract a new group of school leavers to physics. ‘Until now, we mainly attracted students who were sufficiently motivated by the physics in itself. With this new specialization, as well as the Physics for Life and Health specialization, we hope to attract students with more of a social focus.’

Meijer stresses that regardless of the specialization you choose you will end with a Bachelor’s degree in Physics. ‘This will enable you to enrol in any Master’s programme that requires a Bachelor’s degree in Physics. The Master’s programme in Energy and Environmental Sciences would be the most logical continuation of the programme, of course.’

Students follow one specialization course unit in their first year, two in the second, and the third year is completely devoted to the chosen specialization. ‘In addition to the course units in fundamental physics, you also do course units such as Energy and the Community.’ The career opportunities for graduates in this new specialization are numerous. ‘Scientific research, working at a research organization like TNO or ECN but also energy companies like NAM or Shell or a consultancy firm. Or you could work for the government, in either policymaking or enforcement.’

Maikel van Putten
Maikel van Putten

The almost graduate

Maikel van Putten is doing his Bachelor’s research project in Harro Meijer’s lab at the Centre for Isotope Research (CIO) at the University of Groningen. He is measuring how much carbon dioxide the oceans absorb.

‘I already knew I wanted to study physics when I was still at school. What I like about physics is how it enables you to describe reality in formulas.’ But Maikel also wanted to study a subject that is relevant to society at large. ‘That’s how I ended up in the Energy and Sustainability specialization. This had course units like Science and Society, about how you explain your research to the community.’

However, Maikel actually likes the hard-core physics course units best. ‘I can well imagine that you would want to focus on that.’ But the ‘softer’ course units with, for example, discussions on nuclear energy add an extra dimension. The combination of hard science and social relevance can also be found in his research. ‘I’m measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide in water samples from the ocean. We’ve got some 200 samples, taken at different depths between Ireland and Greenland.’ At the CIO, it is possible to distinguish between carbon dioxide that comes from natural processes and from the burning of fossil fuels. ‘What I am measuring is how much greenhouse gas the ocean can absorb.’

And what is Maikel going to do after he graduates? ‘The first thing I’m going to do is an extra year with more theoretical courses. I want to go into more depth. The Master’s programme in Energy and Environmental Sciences would be the logical choice after that. But I haven’t made up my mind yet.’

As from September 2014, the Bachelor’s programme in physics and all the specializations will be taught in English.

Last modified:18 February 2019 11.26 a.m.

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