The new thermodynamics: how quantum physics is bending the rules
It would take a foolhardy physicist to dare attempt to break the laws of thermodynamics. But it turns out that there may be ways to bend them. At a lab at the University of Oxford, UK, quantum physicists are trying to do so with a small lump of synthetic diamond. At first, the diamond is barely visible, nestled inside a chaotic mess of optical fibres and mirrors. But when they switch on a green laser, defects in the diamond are illuminated, and the crystal begins to glow red.
In that light, the team has found preliminary evidence of an effect that was theorized only a few years ago1: a quantum boost that would push the diamond's power output above the level prescribed by classical thermodynamics. If the results hold up, they will be a tangible boon for the study of quantum thermodynamics, a relatively new field that aims to uncover the rules that govern heat and energy flow at the atomic scale.
There is reason to suspect that the laws of thermodynamics, which are based on how large numbers of particles behave, are different in the quantum realm. Over the past five years or so, a quantum-thermodynamics community has grown around that idea. What was once the domain of a handful of theoreticians now includes a few hundred theoretical and experimental physicists around the globe. “The field is moving so fast I can barely keep up,” says Ronnie Kosloff, an early pioneer of the field at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.