UK-Irish collaboration awarded 1.6 million to uncover the secrets of quantum thermodynamics

The smallest possible thermal machine is built from one or a handful of atoms sa

The smallest possible thermal machine is built from one or a handful of atoms sandwiched between much larger leads that are at different temperatures. Instead of moving parts, like pistons, such nanoscale machines operate using the flow of microscopic particles between the leads through the atoms (see arrows).

Thermodynamics is one of the pillars of natural sciences: it studies the way energy is exchanged between bodies at different temperature, predicts the likeliness of certain chemical reactions, and explains why even the most energy-efficient engine will always produce waste.

However, what happens when the processes of interest involve systems as simple as electrons, atoms or simple molecules? For such nanoscale building blocks of matter, the laws of physics experienced in the everyday world are no longer valid, and quantum mechanics come into play. Therefore, to provide an accurate description of energy-exchange processes occurring at microscopic scales, thermodynamics must be blended with the quantum framework.

Such new avenues of investigation promise to deliver minuscule devices able to make use of the counter-intuitive laws of quantum mechanics to outperform their classical counterparts. Miniaturised to only handfuls of atoms, these machines hold the promise of offering highly efficient ways of generating power, managing heat flows and recovering wasted energy in wide-ranging technologies, from microprocessors to chemical reactions.

The UK-Irish consortium QuamNESS, comprising researchers at the University of Bristol, Queen’s University Belfast, and Trinity College Dublin, will address this challenging perspective. By developing novel mathematical tools and powerful simulation methods the fundamental principles governing the performance of the smallest possible engines will be revealed. Supported by a large EPSRC-SFI grant, totalling more than 1.6 million, the QuamNESS team will work towards a fully-fledged understanding of how to engineer new technologies that benefit from super-efficient (quantum-enhanced) thermal management.

Dr Stephen Clark, Senior Lecturer in Physics at the University of Bristol and one of the principal investigators of QuamNESS, said: “Developing the tools to unravel quantum enhancements is of paramount importance to near-future technologies and is the main objective of our project.

“Quantum systems are well known to behave in very unintuitive ways. Under certain conditions, these strange quantum effects can both compete and radically alter the way energy is transformed. Our project will sharpen the view of this interplay by reassessing the fundamental concepts of irreversibility and fluctuations. The long-term aim is then to design schemes to harness quantum effects to make more efficient nanoscale machines.”

“A crucial feature of QuamNESS is that it brings together a uniquely well-suited team of researchers across world-class institutions in England, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Consequently the EPSRC-SFI partnership scheme was perfectly placed to support a project built on such close cross-border collaboration.”


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