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Number 598 #1, July 17, 2002 by Phil Schewe, James Riordon, and Ben Stein

Pushing the Second Law to the Limit

Australian researchers have experimentally shown that microscopic systems (a nano-machine) may spontaneously become more orderly for short periods of time--a development that would be tantamount to violating the second law of thermodynamics, if it happened in a larger system. Don't worry, nature still rigorously enforces the venerable second law in macroscopic systems, but engineers will want to keep limits to the second law in mind when designing nanoscale machines. The new experiment also potentially has important ramifications for an understanding of the mechanics of life on the scale of microbes and cells.

There are numerous ways to summarize the second law of thermodynamics. One of the simplest is to note that it's impossible simply to extract the heat energy from some reservoir and use it to do work. Otherwise, machines could run on the energy in a glass of water, for example, by extracting heat and leaving behind a lump of ice. If this were possible, refrigerators and freezers could create electrical power rather that consuming it. The second law typically concerns collections of many trillions of particles--such as the molecules in an iron rod, or a cup of tea, or a helium balloon--and it works well because it is essentially a statistical statement about the collective behavior of countless particles we could never hope to track individually. In systems of only a few particles, the statistics are grainier, and circumstances may arise that would be highly improbable in large systems. Therefore, the second law of thermodynamics is not generally applied to small collections of particles.

The experiment at the Australian National University in Canberra and Griffith University in Brisbane (Edith Sevick,, 011+61-2-6125-0508) looks at aspects of thermodynamics in the hazy middle ground between very small and very large systems. The researchers used optical tweezers to grab hold of a micron-sized bead and drag it through water. By measuring the motion of the bead and calculating the minuscule forces on it, the researchers were able to show that the bead was sometimes kicked by the water molecules in such a way that energy was transferred from the water to the bead. In effect, heat energy was extracted from the reservoir and used to do work (helping to move the bead) in apparent violation of the second law.

As it turns out, when the bead was briefly moved over short distances, it was almost as likely to extract energy from the water as it was to add energy to the water. But when the bead was moved for more than about 2 seconds at a time, the second law took over again and no useful energy could be extracted from the motion of the water molecules, eliminating the possibility of micron-sized perpetual motion machines that run for more than a few seconds. Nevertheless, many physicists will be surprised to learn that the second law is not entirely valid for systems as large as the bead-and-water experiment, and for periods on the order of seconds. After all, even a cubic micron of water contains about thirty billion molecules. While it's still not possible to do useful work by turning water into ice, the experiment suggests that nanoscale machines may have to deal with phenomena that are more bizarre than most engineers realize. Such tiny devices may even end up running backwards for brief periods due to the counterintuitive energy flow. The research may also be important to biologists because many of the cells and microbes they study comprise systems comparable in size to the bead-and-water experiment. (G.M. Wang et al., Physical Review Letters, 29 July 2002.)

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