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A network of scientists dedicated to understanding the thermodynamics of quantum systems and quantum transport.

The theory of thermodynamics was the great success of 19th century physics. It has given enormous insight into how a machine turns heat into power, whether the machine is a steam engine or a nuclear power station. Similarly, it tells us how power can be used for refrigeration, from your household refrigerator to cooling circuits for superconducting MRI scanners in hospitals. It is a theory which tells us that disorder called entropy is at the heart of most physical processes, and that this disorder increases with time. This necessity that entropy increases with time is what ensures that heat cannot spontaneously flow from cold to hot, and why chemical reactions in your body go in one direction rather than another.

However, the theory of thermodynamics was developed more than 100 years ago, before we knew much about the quantum nature of small objects (electrons, atoms, molecules, etc); in particular that they can exhibit wave-particle duality, that they can be in two different states at the same time (superposition) and can be entangled with other quantum particles far away. All of these effects are described by the theory of quantum mechanics whose consequences are so far reaching that scientists have been grappling with them since the theory was invented in 1925. Quantum transport is the theory of how such quantum objects flow from one place to another, and how this flow is affected by wave-particle duality, superposition and entanglement. Most commonly the quantum objects that flow are electrons in metals, semiconductors or superconductors, but they could also be atoms in optical lattices.

The traditional theory of thermodynamics does not account for many of the above counter-intuitive quantum effects, so our aim is to develop theories which do. This is crucial, because we are now designing and building proto-type thermodynamic machines to turn heat into work (or vice versa), which can exhibit these quantum effects. Typically such machines consist of a few quantum objects, or involve flows of a few particles at a time, which makes the effects of wave-particle duality, superposition and entanglement very strong.

Our main objective is to better understand the laws of nature. More particularly, we aim to better understand what heat and entropy mean for quantum objects, and to better understand how such objects thermalize. We also aim to understand what quantum machines can be capable of, and what the laws of physics do not allow. At the same time, more practical goals include;

  • Understanding how to measure heat flows and temperatures at the quantum scale.

  • Using non-equilibrium thermodynamic measurements to tell us more about a quantum system that we are studying. For example, using the thermoelectric response of a quantum system to learn more about it.

  • Using ideas from quantum transport and quantum thermodynamics to devise more efficient thermoelectrics and photovoltaics.