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Atoms at negative absolute temperature are the hottest systems in the world

January 04, 2013

Dr. Ulrich Schneider

Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, Garching

/ Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Prof. Dr. Immanuel Bloch

Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, Garching**Reprint**

What is normal to most people in winter has so far been impossible in physics: a minus temperature. On the Celsius scale minus temperatures are only surprising in summer. On the absolute temperature scale, which is used by physicists and is also called the Kelvin scale, it is not possible to go below zero – at least not in the sense of getting colder than zero kelvin. According to the physical meaning of temperature, the temperature of a gas is determined by the chaotic movement of its particles – the colder the gas, the slower the particles. At zero kelvin (minus 273 degrees Celsius) the particles stop moving and all disorder disappears. Thus, nothing can be colder than absolute zero on the Kelvin scale. Physicists at the Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich and the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching have now created an atomic gas in the laboratory that nonetheless has negative Kelvin values. These negative absolute temperatures have several apparently absurd consequences: although the atoms in the gas attract each other and give rise to a negative pressure, the gas does not collapse – a behaviour that is also postulated for dark energy in cosmology. Supposedly impossible heat engines such as a combustion engine with a thermodynamic efficiency of over 100% can also be realised with the help of negative absolute temperatures.

Hot minus temperatures: At a negative absolute temperature the energy distribution of particles inverts in comparison to a positive temperature. Many particles then have a high energy and few a low one. This corresponds to a temperature which is hotter than one that is infinitely high, where the particles are distributed equally over all energies. A negative Kelvin temperature can only be achieved experimentally if the energy has an upper limit, just as non-moving particles form a lower limit for the kinetic energy at positive temperatures.

Physicists at the LMU and the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics have now achieved this.

Hot minus temperatures: At a negative absolute temperature the energy distribution of particles inverts in comparison to ... https://www.mpg.de/research/negative-absolute-temperature

© LMU and MPG Munich

In order to bring water to the boil, energy needs to be added. As the water heats up, the water molecules increase their kinetic energy over time and move faster and faster on average. Yet, the individual molecules possess different kinetic energies – from very slow to very fast. Low-energy states are more likely than high-energy states, i.e. only a few particles move really fast. In physics, this distribution is called the Boltzmann distribution. Physicists working with Ulrich Schneider and Immanuel Bloch have now realised a gas in which this distribution is precisely inverted: many particles possess high energies and only a few have low energies. This inversion of the energy distribution means that the particles have assumed a negative absolute temperature.

“The inverted Boltzmann distribution is the hallmark of negative absolute temperature; and this is what we have achieved,” says Ulrich Schneider. “Yet the gas is not colder than zero kelvin, but hotter,” as the physicist explains: “It is even hotter than at any positive temperature – the temperature scale simply does not end at infinity, but jumps to negative values instead.”

A negative temperature can only be achieved with an upper limit for the energy

The meaning of a negative absolute temperature can best be illustrated with rolling spheres in a hilly landscape, where the valleys stand for a low potential energy and the hills for a high one. The faster the spheres move, the higher their kinetic energy as well: if one starts at positive temperatures and increases the total energy of the spheres by heating them up, the spheres will increasingly spread into regions of high energy. If it were possible to heat the spheres to infinite temperature, there would be an equal probability of finding them at any point in the landscape, irrespective of the potential energy. If one could now add even more energy and thereby heat the spheres even further, they would preferably gather at high-energy states and would be even hotter than at infinite temperature. The Boltzmann distribution would be inverted, and the temperature therefore negative. At first sight it may sound strange that a negative absolute temperature is hotter than a positive one. This is simply a consequence of the historic definition of absolute temperature, however; if it were defined differently, this apparent contradiction would not exist.

Temperature as a game of marbles: The Boltzmann distribution states how many particles have which energy, and can be illustrated with the aid of spheres that are distributed in a hilly landscape. At positive temperatures (left image), as are common in everyday life, most spheres lie in the valley at minimum potential energy and barely move; they therefore also possess minimum kinetic energy. States with low total energy are therefore more likely than those with high total energy – the usual Boltzmann distribution. At infinite temperature (centre image) the spheres are spread evenly over low and high energies in an identical landscape. Here, all energy states are equally probable. At negative temperatures (right image), however, most spheres move on top of the hill, at the upper limit of the potential energy. Their kinetic energy is also maximum. Energy states with high total energy thus occur more frequently than those with low total energy – the Boltzmann distribution is inverted.

Temperature as a game of marbles: The Boltzmann distribution states how many particles have which energy, and can be ... https://www.mpg.de/research/negative-absolute-temperature

© LMU and MPG Munich

This inversion of the population of energy states is not possible in water or any other natural system as the system would need to absorb an infinite amount of energy – an impossible feat! However, if the particles possess an upper limit for their energy, such as the top of the hill in the potential energy landscape, the situation will be completely different. The researchers in Immanuel Bloch’s and Ulrich Schneider’s research group have now realised such a system of an atomic gas with an upper energy limit in their laboratory, following theoretical proposals by Allard Mosk and Achim Rosch.

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Read More:

https://www.mpg.de/research/negative-absolute-temperature

Negative Absolute Temperature for Motional Degrees of Freedom

Absolute temperature, the fundamental temperature scale in thermodynamics, is usually bound to be positive. Under special conditions, however, negative temperatures - where high-energy states are more occupied than low-energy states - are also possible. So far, such states have been demonstrated in localized systems with finite, discrete spectra. Here, we were able to prepare a negative temperature state for motional degrees of freedom. By tailoring the Bose-Hubbard Hamiltonian we created an attractively interacting ensemble of ultracold bosons at negative temperature that is stable against collapse for arbitrary atom numbers. The quasi-momentum distribution develops sharp peaks at the upper band edge, revealing thermal equilibrium and bosonic coherence over several lattice sites. Negative temperatures imply negative pressures and open up new parameter regimes for cold atoms, enabling fundamentally new many-body states and counterintuitive effects such as Carnot engines above unity efficiency.

Negative Absolute Temperature for Motional Degrees of Freedom