Physicists at the University of Zurich have developed an amazingly simple device that allows heat to flow temporarily from a cold to a warm object without an external power supply. Intriguingly, the process initially appears to contradict the fundamental laws of physics.

If you put a teapot of boiling water on the kitchen table, it will gradually cool down. However, its temperature is not expected to fall below that of the table. It is precisely this everyday experience that illustrates one of the fundamental laws of physics — the second law of thermodynamics — which states that the entropy of a closed natural system must increase over time. Or, more simply put: Heat can flow by itself only from a warmer to a colder object, and not the other way round.

Cooling below room temperature

The results of a recent experiment carried out by the research group of Prof. Andreas Schilling in the Department of Physics at the University of Zurich (UZH) appear at first sight to challenge the second law of thermodynamics. The researchers managed to cool a nine-gram piece of copper from over 100°C to significantly below room temperature without an external power supply. “Theoretically, this experimental device could turn boiling water to ice, without using any energy,” says Schilling.

Read more at University of Zurich