The laws of thermodynamics successfully describe the concepts of work and heat in a wide variety of systems, ranging from refrigerators to black holes, as long as the systems are macroscopic. But for quantum technologies on the micro- and nano-scale, quantum fluctuations that are insignificant on large scales start to become prominent. As previous research as shown, the large quantum effects call for a complete reformulation of the thermodynamics laws.
What a quantum version of thermodynamics might look like is not yet known, and neither are the limitations or possible advantages of the quantum devices that would be described by such laws. However, one intriguing question is whether it may be possible to build a reversible quantum engine—one in which the engine’s operation can be reversed without energy dissipation (an “adiabatic” process).
In the new paper, the physicists have shown one example of a quantum engine that is “super-adiabatic.” That is, the engine uses quantum shortcuts to achieve a state that is usually achieved only by slow adiabatic processes. This engine can achieve a state that is fully frictionless; in other words, the engine reaches its maximum efficiency, while still generating some power.
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