Tag Archives: thermodynamics

You need a quantum mechanic for an atom-sized machine

This news comes from the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Quantum Technologies according to a May 4, 2020 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Here’s a new chapter in the story of the miniaturisation of machines: researchers in a laboratory in Singapore have shown that a single atom can function as either an engine or a fridge. Such a device could be engineered into future computers and fuel cells to control energy flows.

“Think about how your computer or laptop has a lot of things inside it that heat up. Today you cool that with a fan that blows air. In nanomachines or quantum computers, small devices that do cooling could be something useful,” says Dario Poletti from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

This work gives new insight into the mechanics of such devices. The work is a collaboration involving researchers at the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) and Department of Physics at the National University of Singapore (NUS), SUTD and at the University of Augsburg in Germany. The results were published in the peer-reviewed journal npj Quantum Information (“Single-atom energy-conversion device with a quantum load”).

The researchers have included an exceptionally pretty illustration with the press release,

Caption: Experiments with a single-atom device help researchers understand what quantum effects come into play when machinery shrinks to the atomic scale. Credit: Aki Honda / Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore

A May 4, 2020 National University of Singapore press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the work,

Engines and refrigerators are both machines described by thermodynamics, a branch of science that tells us how energy moves within a system and how we can extract useful work. A classical engine turns energy into useful work. A refrigerator does work to transfer heat, reducing the local temperature. They are, in some sense, opposites.

People have made small heat engines before using a single atom, a single molecule and defects in diamond. A key difference about this device is that it shows quantumness in its action. “We want to understand how we can build thermodynamic devices with just a few atoms. The physics is not well understood so our work is important to know what is possible,” says Manas Mukherjee, a Principal Investigator at CQT, NUS, who led the experimental work.

The researchers studied the thermodynamics of a single barium atom. They devised a scheme in which lasers move one of the atom’s electrons between two energy levels as part of a cycle, causing some energy to be pushed into the atom’s vibrations. Like a car engine consumes petrol to both move pistons and charge up its battery, the atom uses energy from lasers as fuel to increase its vibrating motion. The atom’s vibrations act like a battery, storing energy that can be extracted later. Rearrange the cycle and the atom acts like a fridge, removing energy from the vibrations.

In either mode of operation, quantum effects show up in correlations between the atom’s electronic states and vibrations. “At this scale, the energy transfer between the engine and the load is a bit fuzzy. It is no longer possible to simply do work on the load, you are bound to transfer some heat,” says Poletti. He worked out the theory with collaborators Jiangbin Gong at NUS Physics and Peter Hänggi in Augsburg. The fuzziness makes the process less efficient, but the experimentalists could still make it work.

Mukherjee and colleagues Noah Van Horne, Dahyun Yum and Tarun Dutta used a barium atom from which an electron (a negative charge) is removed. This makes the atom positively charged, so it can be more easily held still inside a metal chamber by electrical fields. All other air is removed from around it. The atom is then zapped with lasers to move it through a four-stage cycle.

The researchers measured the atom’s vibration after applying 2 to 15 cycles. They repeated a given number of cycles up to 150 times, measuring on average how much vibrational energy was present at the end. They could see the vibrational energy increasing when the atom was zapped with an engine cycle, and decreasing when the zaps followed the fridge cycle.

Understanding the atom-sized machine involved both complicated calculations and observations. The team needed to track two thermodynamic quantities known as ergotropy, which is the energy that can be converted to useful work, and entropy, which is related to disorder in the system. Both ergotropy and entropy increase as the atom-machine runs. There’s still a simple way of looking at it, says first author and PhD student Van Horne, “Loosely speaking, we’ve designed a little machine that creates entropy as it is filled up with free energy, much like kids when they are given too much sugar.”

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

Single-atom energy-conversion device with a quantum load by Noah Van Horne, Dahyun Yum, Tarun Dutta, Peter Hänggi, Jiangbin Gong, Dario Poletti & Manas Mukherjee. npj Quantum Information volume 6, Article number: 37 (2020) Published: 01 May 2020

This paper is open access.

Quantum back action and devil’s play

I always appreciate a reference to James Clerk Maxwell’s demon thought experiment (you can find out about it in the Maxwell’s demon Wikipedia entry). This time it comes from physicist  Kater Murch in a July 23, 2018 Washington University in st. Louis (WUSTL) news release (published July 25, 2018 on EurekAlert) written by Brandie Jefferson (offering a good explanation of the thought experiment and more),

Thermodynamics is one of the most human of scientific enterprises, according to Kater Murch, associate professor of physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It has to do with our fascination of fire and our laziness,” he said. “How can we get fire” — or heat — “to do work for us?”

Now, Murch and colleagues have taken that most human enterprise down to the intangible quantum scale — that of ultra low temperatures and microscopic systems — and discovered that, as in the macroscopic world, it is possible to use information to extract work.

There is a catch, though: Some information may be lost in the process.

“We’ve experimentally confirmed the connection between information in the classical case and the quantum case,” Murch said, “and we’re seeing this new effect of information loss.”

The results were published in the July 20 [2018] issue of Physical Review Letters.

The international team included Eric Lutz of the University of Stuttgart; J. J. Alonzo of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg; Alessandro Romito of Lancaster University; and Mahdi Naghiloo, a Washington University graduate research assistant in physics.

That we can get energy from information on a macroscopic scale was most famously illustrated in a thought experiment known as Maxwell’s Demon. [emphasis mine] The “demon” presides over a box filled with molecules. The box is divided in half by a wall with a door. If the demon knows the speed and direction of all of the molecules, it can open the door when a fast-moving molecule is moving from the left half of the box to the right side, allowing it to pass. It can do the same for slow particles moving in the opposite direction, opening the door when a slow-moving molecule is approaching from the right, headed left. ­

After a while, all of the quickly-moving molecules are on the right side of the box. Faster motion corresponds to higher temperature. In this way, the demon has created a temperature imbalance, where one side of the box is hotter. That temperature imbalance can be turned into work — to push on a piston as in a steam engine, for instance. At first the thought experiment seemed to show that it was possible create a temperature difference without doing any work, and since temperature differences allow you to extract work, one could build a perpetual motion machine — a violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

“Eventually, scientists realized that there’s something about the information that the demon has about the molecules,” Murch said. “It has a physical quality like heat and work and energy.”

His team wanted to know if it would be possible to use information to extract work in this way on a quantum scale, too, but not by sorting fast and slow molecules. If a particle is in an excited state, they could extract work by moving it to a ground state. (If it was in a ground state, they wouldn’t do anything and wouldn’t expend any work).

But they wanted to know what would happen if the quantum particles were in an excited state and a ground state at the same time, analogous to being fast and slow at the same time. In quantum physics, this is known as a superposition.

“Can you get work from information about a superposition of energy states?” Murch asked. “That’s what we wanted to find out.”

There’s a problem, though. On a quantum scale, getting information about particles can be a bit … tricky.

“Every time you measure the system, it changes that system,” Murch said. And if they measured the particle to find out exactly what state it was in, it would revert to one of two states: excited, or ground.

This effect is called quantum backaction. To get around it, when looking at the system, researchers (who were the “demons”) didn’t take a long, hard look at their particle. Instead, they took what was called a “weak observation.” It still influenced the state of the superposition, but not enough to move it all the way to an excited state or a ground state; it was still in a superposition of energy states. This observation was enough, though, to allow the researchers track with fairly high accuracy, exactly what superposition the particle was in — and this is important, because the way the work is extracted from the particle depends on what superposition state it is in.

To get information, even using the weak observation method, the researchers still had to take a peek at the particle, which meant they needed light. So they sent some photons in, and observed the photons that came back.

“But the demon misses some photons,” Murch said. “It only gets about half. The other half are lost.” But — and this is the key — even though the researchers didn’t see the other half of the photons, those photons still interacted with the system, which means they still had an effect on it. The researchers had no way of knowing what that effect was.

They took a weak measurement and got some information, but because of quantum backaction, they might end up knowing less than they did before the measurement. On the balance, that’s negative information.

And that’s weird.

“Do the rules of thermodynamics for a macroscopic, classical world still apply when we talk about quantum superposition?” Murch asked. “We found that yes, they hold, except there’s this weird thing. The information can be negative.

“I think this research highlights how difficult it is to build a quantum computer,” Murch said.

“For a normal computer, it just gets hot and we need to cool it. In the quantum computer you are always at risk of losing information.”

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

Information Gain and Loss for a Quantum Maxwell’s Demon by M. Naghiloo, J. J. Alonso, A. Romito, E. Lutz, and K. W. Murch. Phys. Rev. Lett. 121, 030604 (Vol. 121, Iss. 3 — 20 July 2018) DOI:https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.121.030604 Published 17 July 2018

© 2018 American Physical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

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.

Nano sheds some light on incandescence and a Framing Nano report

The news caught my eye immediately,  ‘Scientists at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) have created the world’s smallest incandescent lamp‘. It reminded me of Oliver Saks’ memoir, Uncle Tungsten, which dwelled at length on his uncle’s light bulb factory and their mutual fascination with the filament. Very briefly, the scientists are exploring the boundary between two incompatible theories, thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. There’s more here.

I mentioned the Framing Nano project  in a previous post (July 28, 2008), a European nano governance project. In January 2009, they released a report with an enormous title, ‘Framing Nano Project: A multistakeholder dialogue platform framing the responsible development of Nanosciences & Nanotechnologjes‘. It’s mostly concerned with risk and regulation in Europe but there’s also a bit of information the situation in other parts of the world. There is mention of Canada,

Australia and Canada are also rather active on nanoregulation. Both have important programmes on EHS (Environment, Health and Safety) research and have published in-depth reviews of their regulations to assess eventual limits when dealing with nanotechnology. Even though no specific laws have been set up, the adoption of a precautionary approach principle, when dealing with nanotechnology application, is envisaged in both countries. (p. 4)

The report does not cite source for its contentions about Canada, which means that I’m not sure what to make of it. Last year at the Cascadia Nanotechnology Symposium (March 2008), there seemed to be a general consensus that virtually no analysis had been done or was being done on whether or not existing regulatory frameworks could accommodate nanotechnology. Of course, the problem with these things is that the federal government is huge so it’s possible that none representatives from the National Research Council and other government agencies could be unaware of those developments. If you’re interested in the Framing Nano report, you can read more about it and/or get a copy of it here .