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SFI External Professors Jim Crutchfield and Raissa D’Souza are coordinating a working group at SFI this week to explore information processing on the nanoscale using recent innovations in nonequilibrium thermodynamics.

The meeting, “Information Engines: Computing and Communication on the Nanoscale,” brings together theorists and experimentalists in nanodevices, biochemistry, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, and information theory.

Taking cues from the exquisite little machines of the biological universe – cells – and how elegantly they manipulate energy and information, Crutchfield and his team are working on ways to harvest heat – disorganized energy – and transform it into useful, organized energy.

At first blush, this seems to violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The catch, however, is that the Second Law holds true only on average at the cellular, nanoscale level.

“If it’s true only every once in a while,” Crutchfield muses, “then we should be able to design sufficiently smart molecules that occasionally violate it. If so, you can grab that energy and use it.”

Crutchfield and his experimental team members have already begun the process of marrying computing to nonequilibrium thermodynamics by designing smart, energy-harvesting mechanical nanodevices.

“If we’re right,” he says, “basic principles of information processing on the nanoscale will apply across all scales, including human-designed networked networks.”

More information about the working group here.