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Harvard University

University Chemistry: Molecular Foundations and Global Frontiers Part 1

Harvard University via edX

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What technical forces are shaping the modern world? Revolutionary developments in the union of chemistry and physics hold the key to solving unprecedented global problems; however, understanding the central role that chemistry and technical forces play in addressing these problems and shaping our modern world requires a grasp of fundamental concepts of energy and energy transformations.

Physical sciences are fundamental to an understanding of worldwide energy sources and constraints, energy forecasts, the technology connecting energy and climate, and the role of modern materials science. In this course, you will study industrial advances in solar cells, energy storage, and molecular imaging, and how international policies relate to these innovations. You’ll learn the role of energy in climate change and exactly how irreversible global climate change causes sea levels to rise, storms to become more powerful, and how large scale shifts in the climate structure trigger water and food shortages, as well as how technology advances to address these global issues.

PS11.1x: University Chemistry: Molecular Foundations and Global Frontiers is Part 1 of what will be a two-part course. Part 1 of this course will teach you the foundational principles of chemistry and energy: thermodynamics, entropy, free energy, equilibria, acid-base reactions, and electrochemistry. Instead of learning about these concepts in the abstract, case studies will be used to develop quantitative reasoning and to directly link these principles to current global strategies.

There is also an optional textbook available for purchase as a supplement to the course.


Chapter 1. Energy: Conceptual Foundation and Laws that Govern its Transformation

Recognizing various forms of energy and understanding the scientific principles involved in the transformations that take place between these energy categories is fundamental to scientific understanding at any level of inquiry. Energy is found in the form of molecular motion, electrical energy, nuclear energy, electromagnetic energy, kinetic energy of macroscopic objects, gravitational energy, etc. The scientific principles that govern energy at the molecular level are linked to the behavior of energy at the global level. This establishes a foundation defining the central importance of energy for each of the subsequent chapters.

Chapter 2. Atomic and Molecular Structure: Energy from Chemical Bonds

How is the energy contained in the chemical bond extracted to produce useful work at the molecular level? Why is virtually all of the energy contained in a chemical bond lost as heat under some circumstances, but is effectively channeled to build new and complex molecules in other instances? How is the chemical energy of one reaction coupled to subsequent chemical reactions leading to the formation of a desired chemical product? These questions are explored by first developing the concepts central to atomic structure and chemical bonding.

Chapter 3. Thermochemistry: Development of the First Law of Thermodynamics

The First Law of Thermodynamics is the law of conservation of energy: heat and work are both forms of energy. In any process, energy can be converted from one form to another, but it is never created nor destroyed. In order to understand and apply the First Law, we must develop a clear understanding of the distinction between temperature, heat, work and the thermal energy contained within the system under study. These ideas are developed quantitatively such that they can be applied to chemical reactions, heat engines, and phase changes.

Chapter 4. Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Nature is driven by spontaneous processes, processes that proceed without external intervention. With our advancing understanding of energy, with the insight brought by the First Law of Thermodynamics, and with our ability to track energy transformations from highly organized forms of energy that inexorably cascade to disorganized thermal energy, comes a sharpened recognition that there are other factors that drive spontaneous processes in nature. This constitutes the imperative for understanding entropy.

Chapter 5. Equilibria and Free Energy

A chemical system in equilibrium, aA + bB ←→ cC + dD, represents an unchanging combination of macroscopic properties: concentrations, pressure, temperature, etc. There are no apparent changes with time. The equilibrium state thus determines the extent to which a reaction takes place. But at the molecular level, the situation is far different. In this section we quantitatively couple the concept of Gibbs Free Energy with the concept of chemical equilibrium.

Chapter 6. Equilibria in Solution

The role of proton transfer—the transfer of a hydrogen ion, H+, from one species to another, often involving water as a solvent—is a theme of broad importance. The proton, as we will see, organizes the molecular level structure of liquid water, controls life’s biochemical pathways, is held in delicate control in the blood of all organisms, constructs and deconstructs polymers, and aids in the synthesis of exquisite calcium containing structures at the intersection of organic and inorganic architectures in living systems. This section links the behavior of acids and bases to Gibbs Free Energy.

Chapter 7. Electrochemistry

The study of the union between chemistry and electricity—the flow of electrons driven spontaneously by Free Energy release in a chemical reaction—has provided a rich history of remarkable discoveries. These studies constitute the discipline of electrochemistry, a subject that has experienced a dramatic rebirth. That rebirth has been propelled by the emergence of energy production and storage as a dominant problem confronting both science and public policy. New developments in electric automobiles are linked to important developments to control the release of carbon to the atmosphere.

Taught by

James Anderson


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