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2019 Intelligence in the Physical World

2019 Information as Fuel

2018 Agency in the Physical World
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2016 Physics of the Observer
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2015 The Physics of What Happens
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2013 Physics of Information
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2010 The Nature of Time
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2008 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
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2006 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
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Natalia Ares
University of Oxford


Alexia Auffèves, Institut Neel - CNRS; Juan Parrondo, Universidad Complutense de Madrid; Owen Maroney, University of Oxford; Janet Anders, University of Exeter

Project Title

Nanomechanics in the solid-state for quantum information thermodynamics (NanoQIT)

Project Summary

The theory of thermodynamics, commonly associated with the steam engines of the 19th century, is a universal set of laws that governs everything from black holes to the evolution of life. Albert Einstein was convinced it was the only theory likely to “never be overthrown.”

This theory introduced the foundational concept of information to physics. With the recent emergence of modern technologies for the fabrication of electronic devices on the atomic scale, we can now test the link between thermodynamics and information in the quantum realm for the first time. We will fabricate devices at nanometre scales, merely a dozen atoms across, and hold them at temperatures far colder than even deepest outer space. Here quantum rather than classical laws will apply, and so we can explore the link between information and thermodynamics in the quantum world. In the same way that thermodynamics was key to building classical steam engines, the emergence of quantum machines is forcing us to reimagine this theory in the quantum realm. The time is right to dive into this unexplored field.

Maxwell’s demon, born in 1867, revealed the classical relationship between entropy and information and still thrives in modern physics. This intelligent agent had information about the velocities and positions of the particles in a gas, and could therefore transfer the fast, hot particles from a cold reservoir to a hot one, in apparent violation of the second law of thermodynamics. This finding exposed the necessity to refine the second law of thermodynamics to incorporate information explicitly, as well as to clarify the physical nature of information.

In the quantum world, the classical connection between information and thermodynamics has to be revised. We will build an experimental platform with direct access to thermodynamic quantities to explore information thermodynamics in small devices operating in the quantum regime. Controlling thermodynamic quantities at such small scales requires devices with enough sophistication to replicate the operation of a heat engine. Our devices will allow us to build machines in which the “steam” is one or two electrons, and the piston is a tiny semiconductor wire in the form of a carbon nanotube (Fig.1). We expect that exploring this new territory will have as great a fundamental impact on how we think of information as previous studies in the classical regime have had. We are excited to exploit our devices with unique capabilities to discover the singularities of quantum thermodynamics.

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