Thermodynamics of quantum channels

You would hardly think that a quantum channel could have any sort of thermodynamic behavior. We were surprised, too.

How do the laws of thermodynamics apply in the quantum regime? Thanks to novel ideas introduced in the context of quantum information, scientists have been able to develop new ways to characterize the thermodynamic behavior of quantum states. If you’re a Quantum Frontiers regular, you have certainly read about these advances in Nicole’s captivating posts on the subject.

Asking the same question for quantum channels, however, turned out to be more challenging than expected. A quantum channel is a way of representing how an input state can change into an output state according to the laws of quantum mechanics. Let’s picture it as a box with an input state and an output state, like so:


A computing gate, the building block of quantum computers, is described by a quantum channel. Or, if Alice sends a photon to Bob over an optical fiber, then the whole process is represented by a quantum channel. Thus, by studying quantum channels directly we can derive statements that are valid regardless of the physical platform used to store and process the quantum information—ion traps, superconducting qubits, photonic qubits, NV centers, etc.

We asked the following question: If I’m given a quantum channel, can I transform it into another, different channel by using something like a miniature heat engine? If so, how much work do I need to spend in order to accomplish this task? The answer is tricky because of a few aspects in which quantum channels are more complicated than quantum states.

In this post, I’ll try to give some intuition behind our results, which were developed with the help of Mario Berta and Fernando Brandão, and which were recently published in Physical Review Letters.

First things first, let’s worry about how to study the thermodynamic behavior of miniature systems.

Thermodynamics of small stuff

One of the important ideas that quantum information brought to thermodynamics is the idea of a resource theory. In a resource theory, we declare that there are certain kinds of states that are available for free, and that there are a set of operations that can be carried out for free. In a resource theory of thermodynamics, when we say “for free,” we mean “without expending any thermodynamic work.”

Here, the free states are those in thermal equilibrium at a fixed given temperature, and the free operations are those quantum operations that preserve energy and that introduce no noise into the system (we call those unitary operations). Faced with a task such as transforming one quantum state into another, we may ask whether or not it is possible to do so using the freely available operations. If that is not possible, we may then ask how much thermodynamic work we need to invest, in the form of additional energy at the input, in order to make the transformation possible.

Interestingly, the amount of work needed to go from one state ρ to another state σ might be unrelated to the work required to go back from σ to ρ. Indeed, the freely allowed operations can’t always be reversed; the reverse process usually requires a different sequence of operations, incurring an overhead. There is a mathematical framework to understand these transformations and this reversibility gap, in which generalized entropy measures play a central role. To avoid going down that road, let’s instead consider the macroscopic case in which we have a large number n of independent particles that are all in the same state ρ, a state which we denote by \rho^{\otimes n}. Then something magical happens: This macroscopic state can be reversibly converted to and from another macroscopic state \sigma^{\otimes n}, where all particles are in some other state σ. That is, the work invested in the transformation from \rho^{\otimes n} to \sigma^{\otimes n} can be entirely recovered by performing the reverse transformation:


If this rings a bell, that is because this is precisely the kind of thermodynamics that you will find in your favorite textbook. There is an optimal, reversible way of transforming any two thermodynamic states into each other, and the optimal work cost of the transformation is the difference of a corresponding quantity known as the thermodynamic potential. Here, the thermodynamic potential is a quantity known as the free energy F(\rho). Therefore, the optimal work cost per copy w of transforming \rho^{\otimes n} into \sigma^{\otimes n} is given by the difference in free energy w = F(\sigma) - F(\rho).

From quantum states to quantum channels

Can we repeat the same story for quantum channels? Suppose that we’re given a channel \mathcal{E}, which we picture as above as a box that transforms an input state into an output state. Using the freely available thermodynamic operations, can we “transform” \mathcal{E} into another channel \mathcal{F}? That is, can we wrap this box with some kind of procedure that uses free thermodynamic operations to pre-process the input and post-process the output, such that the overall new process corresponds (approximately) to the quantum channel \mathcal{F}? We might picture the situation like this:


Let us first simplify the question by supposing we don’t have a channel \mathcal{E} to start off with. How can we implement the channel \mathcal{F} from scratch, using only free thermodynamic operations and some invested work? That simple question led to pages and pages of calculations, lots of coffee, a few sleepless nights, and then more coffee. After finally overcoming several technical obstacles, we found that in the macroscopic limit of many copies of the channel, the corresponding amount of work per copy is given by the maximum difference of free energy F between the input and output of the channel. We decided to call this quantity the thermodynamic capacity of the channel:


Intuitively, an implementation of \mathcal{F}^{\otimes n} must be prepared to expend an amount of work corresponding to the worst possible transformation of an input state to its corresponding output state. It’s kind of obvious in retrospect. However, what is nontrivial is that one can find a single implementation that works for all input states.

It turned out that this quantity had already been studied before. An earlier paper by Navascués and García-Pintos had shown that it was exactly this quantity that characterized the amount of work per copy that could be extracted by “consuming” many copies of a process \mathcal{E}^{\otimes n} provided as black boxes.

To our surprise, we realized that Navascués and García-Pintos’s result implied that the transformation of \mathcal{E}^{\otimes n} into \mathcal{F}^{\otimes n} is reversible. There is a simple procedure to convert \mathcal{E}^{\otimes n} into \mathcal{F}^{\otimes n} at a cost per copy that equals T(\mathcal{F}) - T(\mathcal{E}). The procedure consists in first extracting T(\mathcal{E}) work per copy of the first set of channels, and then preparing \mathcal{F}^{\otimes n} from scratch at a work cost of T(\mathcal{F}) per copy:


Clearly, the reverse transformation yields back all the work invested in the forward transformation, making the transformation reversible. That’s because we could have started with \mathcal{F}’s and finished with \mathcal{E}’s instead of the opposite, and the associated work cost per copy would be T(\mathcal{E}) - T(\mathcal{F}). Thus the transformation is, indeed, reversible:


In turn, this implies that in the many-copy regime, quantum channels have a macroscopic thermodynamic behavior. That is, there is a thermodynamic potential—the thermodynamic capacity—that quantifies the minimal work required to transform one macroscopic set of channels into another.

Prospects for the thermodynamic capacity

Resource theories that are reversible are pretty rare. Reversibility is a coveted property because a reversible resource theory is one in which we can easily understand exactly which transformations are possible. Other than the thermodynamic resource theory of states mentioned above, most instances of a resource theory—especially resource theories of channels—typically produce the kind of overheads in the conversion cost that spoil reversibility. So it’s rather exciting when you do find a new reversible resource theory of channels.

Quantum information theorists, especially those working on the theory of quantum communication, care a lot about characterizing the capacity of a channel. This is the maximal amount of information that can be transmitted through a channel. Even though in our case we’re talking about a different kind of capacity—one where we transmit thermodynamic energy and entropy, rather than quantum bits of messages—there are some close parallels between the two settings from which both fields of quantum communication and quantum thermodynamics can profit. Our result draws deep inspiration from the so-called quantum reverse Shannon theorem, an important result in quantum communication that tells us how two parties can communicate using one kind of a channel if they have access to another kind of a channel. On the other hand, the thermodynamic capacity at zero energy is a quantity that was already studied in quantum communication, but it was not clear what that quantity represented concretely. This quantity gained even more importance as it was identified as the entropy of a channel. Now, we see that this quantity has a thermodynamic interpretation. Also, the thermodynamic capacity has a simple definition, it is relatively easy to compute and it is additive—all desirable properties that other measures of capacity of a quantum channel do not necessarily share.

We still have a few rough edges that I hope we can resolve sooner or later. In fact, there is an important caveat that I have avoided mentioning so far—our argument only holds for special kinds of channels, those that do the same thing regardless of when they are applied in time. (Those channels are called time-covariant.) A lot of channels that we’re used to studying have this property, but we think it should be possible to prove a version of our result for any general quantum channel. In fact, we do have another argument that works for all quantum channels, but it uses a slightly different thermodynamic framework which might not be physically well-grounded.

That’s all very nice, I can hear you think, but is this useful for any quantum computing applications? The truth is, we’re still pretty far from founding a new quantum start-up. The levels of heat dissipation in quantum logic elements are still orders of magnitude away from the fundamental limits that we study in the thermodynamic resource theory.

Rather, our result teaches us about the interplay of quantum channels and thermodynamic concepts. We not only have gained useful insight on the structure of quantum channels, but also developed new tools for how to analyze them. These will be useful to study more involved resource theories of channels. And still, in the future when quantum technologies will perhaps approach the thermodynamically reversible limit, it might be good to know how to implement a given quantum channel in such a way that good accuracy is guaranteed for any possible quantum input state, and without any inherent overhead due to the fact that we don’t know what the input state is.

Thermodynamics, a theory developed to study gases and steam engines, has turned out to be relevant from the most obvious to the most unexpected of situations—chemical reactions, electromagnetism, solid state physics, black holes, you name it. Trust the laws of thermodynamics to surprise you again by applying to a setting you’d never imagined them to, like quantum channels.

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