A theory of thermodynamics for nanoscale quantum systems

Nelly Ng

Research output: ThesisDissertation (TU Delft)

70 Downloads (Pure)


Thermodynamics is one of the main pillars of theoretical physics, and it has a special appeal of having wide applicability to a large variety of different physical systems. However, many assumptions in thermodynamics apply only to systems which are bulk material, i.e. consisting a large number of microscopic classical particles. Due to the advancement of designing nanoscale engines, especially in the light of devices that are used today in the processing of quantum information, is thermodynamics still applicable? Can we refine the core principles of thermodynamics to suit such nanoscale quantum systems as well? The central aim of this thesis is to construct a theory of thermodynamics that holds for nanoscale quantum systems, even those as small and simple as a single qubit. We do this by starting out from the core basics of quantum theory: unitary dynamics on closed quantum systems. We adapt a resource theoretic approach inspired by quantum information theory, which defines the quantum states and operations allowed to be used in a thermodynamic evolution. With this framework that naturally adopts the first law as an energy preserving condition, we show the refinement of both the zeroeth and second law of thermodynamics. The zeroeth law explains the physical significance of the Gibbs thermal state. On the other hand, we show that the second law sees refinement in the quantum nanoregime: instead of having the free energy as the sole quantity dictating the possibility of a thermodynamic state transition, we derive a family of generalized free energies that also constitute necessary conditions for a transition to occur. Moreover, these conditions become sufficient for states which are block-diagonal in the energy eigenbasis. In this thesis, we also brought our approach of thermodynamics to the next step: we apply our findings on the second laws, in order to analyze the maximum achievable efficiency for quantum heat engines. In classical thermodynamics, the Carnot efficiency has been long known as the theoretical maximum which does not depend on the specific structure of the thermal baths used, but only on its temperature. With the additional free energies we discover, we show that although quantum heat engines may achieve the Carnot efficiency, such an achievability is no longer independent of the Hamiltonians of the thermal baths. In other words, we find additional restrictions that surface in the study of quantum nanoscale heat engines, which are a direct consequence of the generalized second laws. This has provided us with a deeper understanding into the fundamental limitations of how efficient devices can be made in the realm of microscopic quantum systems.
Original languageEnglish
  • Wehner, S.D.C., Supervisor
Award date29 Mar 2017
Print ISBNs978-94-6295-588-2
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • quantum thermodynamics
  • quantum information theory
  • resource theories
  • single-shot work extraction
  • quantum heat engines

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