Fundamentally accurate quantum thermometer created

March 15, 2016 by Chad Boutin, National Institute of Standards and Technology
At top is an electron micrograph of the silicon nitride beam. The bottom shows how the beam deforms as it vibrates (length scale greatly exaggerated) with the red regions showing the most deformation, and the blue regions not moving at all. Over one vibrational period the center of beam goes from being stretched out as shown, to being compressed inward, and then back. Credit: CNST/NIST

Better thermometers might be possible as a result of a discovery at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where physicists have found a way to calibrate temperature measurements by monitoring the tiny motions of a nanomechanical system that are governed by the often counterintuitive rules of quantum mechanics.

While the method is not yet ready for commercialization, it reveals how an object's thermal energy—its heat—can be determined precisely by observing its physical properties at the scale. While the initial demonstration has an absolute accuracy only within a few percentage points, the NIST approach works over a wide range encompassing cryogenic and room temperatures. It is also accomplished with a small, nanofabricated photonic device, which opens up possible applications that are not practical with conventional temperature standards.

The NIST team's approach arose from their efforts to observe the vibrations of a small transparent beam of silicon nitride using laser light. Thermal energy—often expressed as temperature—makes all objects vibrate; the warmer the object, the more pronounced the vibrations, though they are still on the order of just a picometer (trillionths of a meter) in size for the beam at room temperature. To observe these tiny perturbations, the team carved a small reflective cavity into the beam. When they shone a laser through the crystal, the light reflecting from the cavity experienced slight shifts in color or frequency due to the beam's temperature-induced vibrations, making the light's color change noticeably in time with the movement.

But these were not the only vibrations the team members could see. The team also spotted the much more subtle vibrations that all objects possess due to a quantum-mechanical property called zero-point motion: Even at its lowest possible energy, the beam vibrates ever so slightly due to the inherent uncertainty at the heart of quantum mechanics. This motion is independent of temperature, and has a well-known amplitude fundamentally dictated by . By comparing the relative size of the thermal vibration to the quantum motion, the absolute temperature can be determined.

These intrinsic quantum fluctuations are thousands of times fainter and ordinarily get lost in the noise of the thermal energy-induced vibrations typical of ordinary temperatures, but the process of measuring the beam provides a method to distinguish quantum and thermal fluctuations. When photons from the laser bounce off the sides of the beam, they give it slight kicks, inducing correlations that make the quantum motion more pronounced.

"Our technique allowed us to tease the quantum signals out from under the much larger thermal noise," says the team's Tom Purdy, a physicist at NIST's Physical Measurement Laboratory and at the Joint Quantum Institute. "Now we can directly connect temperature to the quantum mechanical fluctuations of a particle. It sets the stage for a new approach to primary thermometry."

The power of this new method, when fully developed, will come when the beam is paired with other much more sensitive on-chip photonic thermometers also under development at NIST. Such devices offer the relative temperature sensitivity demanded by applications in pharmaceutical manufacturing, other high performance industrial applications, and climate monitoring, but require absolute calibration, and may drift over time. This new quantum thermometer will act as an integrated temperature standard, ready to keep the other thermometer on track over long periods of time.

Purdy will present the team's results on March 16, 2016, at the American Physical Society March Meeting in Baltimore, Md.

Explore further: Mechanical quanta see the light

Related Stories

Mechanical quanta see the light

January 19, 2016

Interconnecting different quantum systems is important for future quantum computing architectures, but has proven difficult to achieve. Researchers from the TU Delft and the University of Vienna have now realized a first ...

Measuring the smallest vibration

August 11, 2015

EPFL scientists have used feedback to cool the motion of a micron-sized glass string to near absolute zero. This required building a sensor capable of resolving the smallest vibration allowed by quantum mechanics.

New record in nanoelectronics at ultralow temperatures

January 27, 2016

The first ever measurement of the temperature of electrons in a nanoelectronic device a few thousandths of a degree above absolute zero was demonstrated in a joint research project performed by VTT Technical Research Centre ...

A quantum connection between light and motion

February 6, 2012

( -- Physicists have demonstrated a system in which light is used to control the motion of an object that is large enough to be seen with the naked eye at the level where quantum mechanics governs its behavior.

Laser light used to cool object to quantum ground state

October 5, 2011

For the first time, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), in collaboration with a team from the University of Vienna, have managed to cool a miniature mechanical object to its lowest possible energy ...

Recommended for you

Physicists discover new class of pentaquarks

March 26, 2019

Tomasz Skwarnicki, professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University, has uncovered new information about a class of particles called pentaquarks. His findings could lead to a new understanding ...

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

Physicists reveal why matter dominates universe

March 21, 2019

Physicists in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University have confirmed that matter and antimatter decay differently for elementary particles containing charmed quarks.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (3) Mar 15, 2016
While it may sound esoteric at first, this does have some far reaching implications. It means that anything incorporating such a system needs never be calibrated again (which is pretty huge advantage in a lot of areas). Awesome.
not rated yet Mar 15, 2016
Not my area of expertise, so I hope my question isn't too dumb. Wouldn't each type of material vibrate according to its specific molecular compositions? In other words, you would first have to know the absolute formula of the compound material being monitored - or it would seem there could be differences in vibrations according to composition other than elemental or pure compound composition. Water for example can have a huge number of dissolved compounds - which effect its heat carrying capacity - boiling and freezing points. Wouldn't the dissolved compounds have an impact on the respective water solution compounds vibration relative to its temperature?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.