Tag Archives: Flanders & Swann

Violating the 2nd law of thermodynamics—temporarily—at the nanoscale

For anyone unfamiliar with the laws of thermodynamics or anyone who enjoys some satire with their music, here’s the duo of Flanders & Swann with the ‘First and Second Law’ in a 1964 performance,

According to a March 31, 2014 news item on Nanowerk, it seems, contrary to scientific thought and Flanders & Swann, the 2nd law can be violated, for a time, albeit at the nanoscale,

Objects with sizes in the nanometer range, such as the molecular building blocks of living cells or nanotechnological devices, are continuously exposed to random collisions with surrounding molecules. In such fluctuating environments the fundamental laws of thermodynamics that govern our macroscopic world need to be rewritten. An international team of researchers from Barcelona, Zurich and Vienna found that a nanoparticle trapped with laser light temporarily violates the famous second law of thermodynamics, something that is impossible on human time and length scale.

A March 31, 2014 University of Vienna news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the 2nd law and gives details about the research,

Watching a movie played in reverse often makes us laugh because unexpected and mysterious things seem to happen: glass shards lying on the floor slowly start to move towards each other, magically assemble and suddenly an intact glass jumps on the table where it gently gets to a halt. Or snow starts to from a water puddle in the sun, steadily growing until an entire snowman appears as if molded by an invisible hand. When we see such scenes, we immediately realize that according to our everyday experience something is out of the ordinary. Indeed, there are many processes in nature that can never be reversed. The physical law that captures this behavior is the celebrated second law of thermodynamics, which posits that the entropy of a system – a measure for the disorder of a system – never decreases spontaneously, thus favoring disorder (high entropy) over order (low entropy).

However, when we zoom into the microscopic world of atoms and molecules, this law softens up and looses its absolute strictness. Indeed, at the nanoscale the second law can be fleetingly violated. On rare occasions, one may observe events that never happen on the macroscopic scale such as, for example heat transfer from cold to hot which is unheard of in our daily lives. Although on average the second law of thermodynamics remains valid even in nanoscale systems, scientists are intrigued by these rare events and are investigating the meaning of irreversibility at the nanoscale.

Recently, a team of physicists of the University of Vienna, the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich succeeded in accurately predicting the likelihood of events transiently violating the second law of thermodynamics. They immediately put the mathematical fluctuation theorem they derived to the test using a tiny glass sphere with a diameter of less than 100 nm levitated in a trap of laser light. Their experimental set-up allowed the research team to capture the nano-sphere and hold it in place, and, furthermore, to measure its position in all three spatial directions with exquisite precision. In the trap, the nano-sphere rattles around due to collisions with surrounding gas molecules. By a clever manipulation of the laser trap the scientists cooled the nano-sphere below the temperature of the surrounding gas and, thereby, put it into a non-equilibrium state. They then turned off the cooling and watched the particle relaxing to the higher temperature through energy transfer from the gas molecules. The researchers observed that the tiny glass sphere sometimes, although rarely, does not behave as one would expect according to the second law: the nano-sphere effectively releases heat to the hotter surroundings rather than absorbing the heat. The theory derived by the researchers to analyze the experiment confirms the emerging picture on the limitations of the second law on the nanoscale.

Given the theoretical descriptions of the applications mentioned in the news release, it sounds like at least one of them might be a ‘quantum computing project’,

The experimental and theoretical framework presented by the international research team in the renowned scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology has a wide range of applications. Objects with sizes in the nanometer range, such as the molecular building blocks of living cells or nanotechnological devices, are continuously exposed to a random buffeting due to the thermal motion of the molecules around them. As miniaturization proceeds to smaller and smaller scales nanomachines will experience increasingly random conditions. Further studies will be carried out to illuminate the fundamental physics of nanoscale systems out of equilibrium. The planned research will be fundamental to help us understand how nanomachines perform under these fluctuating conditions.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Dynamic Relaxation of a Levitated Nanoparticle from a Non-Equilibrium Steady State by Jan Gieseler, Romain Quidant, Christoph Dellago, and Lukas Novotny. Nature Nanotechnology AOP, February 28, 2014. DOI: 10.1038/NNANO.2014.40

The paper is behind a paywall but a free preview is available via ReadCube access.

INFERNOS: realizing Maxwell’s Demon

Before getting to the INFERNOS project and its relationship to Maxwell’s demon, I want to share a pretty good example of this ‘demon’ thought experiment which, as recently as Feb. 4, 2013, I featured in a piece about quantum dots,

James Clerk Maxwell, physicist,  has entered the history books for any number reasons but my personal favourite is Maxwell’s demon, a thought experiment he proposed in the 1800s to violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Lisa Zyga in her Feb. 1, 2013 article for phys.org provides an explanation,

When you open your door on a cold winter day, the warm air from your home and the cold air from outside begin to mix and evolve toward thermal equilibrium, a state of complete entropy where the temperatures outside and inside are the same. This situation is a rough example of the second law of thermodynamics, which says that entropy in a closed system never decreases. If you could control the air flow in a way that uses a sufficiently small amount of energy, so that the entropy of the system actually decreases overall, you would have a hypothetical mechanism called Maxwell’s demon.

An Oct. 9, 2013 news item on Nanowerk ties together INFERNOS and the ‘demon’,

Maxwell’s Demon is an imaginary creature that the mathematician James Clerk Maxwell created in 1897. The creature could turn heat into work without causing any other change, which violates the second law of thermodynamics. The primary goal of the European project INFERNOS (Information, fluctuations, and energy control in small systems) is to realize experimentally Maxwell’s Demon; in other words, to develop the electronic and biomolecular nanodevices that support this principle.

The Universitat de Barcelona (University of Barcelona) Oct. 7, 2013 news release, which originated the news item, provides more details about the project,

Although Maxwell’s Demon is one of the cornerstones of theoretical statistical mechanisms, little has been done about its definite experimental realization. Marco Ribezzi, researcher from the Department of Fundamental Physics, explains that “the principal novelty of INFERNOS is to bring a robust and rigorous experimental base for this field of knowledge. We aim at creating a device that can use information to supply/extract energy to/from a system”. In this sense, the UB group, in which researcher Fèlix Ritort from the former department also participates, focuses their activity on understanding how information and temperature changes are used in individual molecules manipulation.

From the theory side, researchers will work in order to develop a theory of the fluctuation processes in small systems, which would then facilitate efficient algorithms for the Maxwell’s Demon operation.

INFERNOS is a three-year European project of the programme Future and Emerging Technologies (FET). Besides the University of Barcelona, INFERNOS partners are: Aalto University (Finland), project coordinator, Lund University (Sweden), the University of Oslo (Norway), Delf University of Technology (Netherlands), the National Center for Scientific Research (France) and the Research Foundation of State University of New York.

I like the INFERNOS logo, demon and all,

Logo of the European project INFERNOS (Information, fluctuations, and energy control in small systems).

Logo of the European project INFERNOS (Information, fluctuations, and energy control in small systems).

The INFERNOS project website can be found here.

And for anyone who finds that music is the best way to learn, here are Flanders & Swann* performing ‘First and Second Law’ from a 1964 show,


* ‘Swan’ corrected to ‘Swann’ on April 1, 2014.

EMI and nanotech plus fashion and nanoparticles

Now I can guess why I haven’t heard back from EMI (music and recording label), after asking them for permission to put an MP3 version of Flanders & Swann song (unintentional wordplay, at first), ‘First and Second Law’ on my Nanotech Mysteries wiki (the project I’m developing for my dissertation). The song is about the first and second laws of thermodynamics (there aren’t that many physics songs and thanks to Richard Jones for mentioning it in his nanotech book, Soft Machines) and it would fit in well with how I see my nano wiki developing. Apparently, EMI hold the rights which should mean a simple request and a ‘yes or no’ answer. That’s what I thought until this morning when I saw an article in the New York Times (here) by Tim Arango.

There was a takeover last year and the transition has not been smooth. At the moment, they’re planning on dropping about 1/3 of their workforce. I guess the employees have had more pressing concerns than replying to my request. Of course, the music industry seems to be in disarray as they’ve been hit with the music downloading situation which has led to questions about copyright and payments. (It’s more complicated than that and you might want to check out Techdirt (at www.techdirt.com) which comments and keeps track of these kinds of issues.) The whole thing really strikes home given the Canadian government’s recent copyright bill which will make criminals of almost everyone in the country.

The whole discussion seems ironic to me because when I was researching a paper on technology transfer about 15 years ago there was a lot of speculation as to why there was so much pirating and exchange of ‘free’ software in Asia. The consensus at the time was that these were cultural issues. Funny, the spirit that led Asian people to copy paid-for (or pirated) software and give it fot free to their friends seems remarkably similar to what we see happening globally with music. Maybe it’s cultural, maybe it’s something else.

A New Zealand researcher has found a way to introduce gold and/or silver nanoparticles into wool creating some unusual colour effects. The article with more details is available at the Nanowerk website here. If the article is to be believed you might be able to buy a $200 to $300 scarf woven in gold or silver (particles) in the not too distant future. It’s a little disconcerting that there aren’t many studies to determine if it’s healthy for humans or what the impact of these nanoparticles (which are in all kinds of products currently available) might be environmentally. It’s good to hear that the US Dept of Energy has awarded a $400,000 grant (details here) to researchers to look into these issues.

If you are interested in some pretty nanopictures, there are some ‘nano flowers’ here at Nanovida, produced by a PhD student Ghim Wei Ho. He works at Dr. Mark Welland at Cambridge University.

I didn’t find any Canadian nano today.