Friday, July 13, 2018

107 Year Old Einstein Prediction Proven

According to this week's Machine Design newsletters, a 107 year old prediction by Albert Einstein was verified recently at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
“We saw evidence for what Einstein first proposed in 1911—that heat energy hops randomly from atom to atom in thermal insulators,” said Lucas Lindsay, materials theorist at ORNL. “The hopping is in addition to the normal heat flow through the collective vibration of atoms.”

The random energy hopping is not noticeable in materials that conduct heat well, like copper on the bottom of saucepans during cooking, but may be detectable in solids that are less able to transmit heat.
The researchers needed to study the heat flow in a material that's really poor at conducting heat, and chose a compound based on the element thallium, a rather uncommon metal, wedged between mercury and lead in the periodic table.  Researchers said the crystal they used, “has one of the lowest thermal conductivities of any crystal.”  It sounds as if they weren't deliberately trying to prove or disprove this prediction, but that they were trying to make sure they could predict the heat flow with a computer model.   
Lindsay and his colleagues used sophisticated vibration-sensing tools to detect the motion of atoms and supercomputers to simulate the journey of heat through a simple thallium-based crystal. Their analysis revealed that the atomic vibrations in the crystal lattice were too sluggish to transmit much heat.
The predicted heat flow from the computer simulations was about half of the heat flow observed in the experiments.  This is what led them to conclude another, additional heat transfer mechanism was at work. 
“Much of the vibrating energy is confined to single atoms, and the energy then hops randomly through the crystal.”
Many useful materials, such as silicon, have a chemically bonded latticework of atoms. Heat is usually carried through this lattice by atomic vibrations, or sound waves. These heat-bearing waves bump into each other, which slows the transfer of heat.
This is the dawn of trying to use this phenomenon in the engineering toolbox, like all other known heat transfer mechanisms.
“Both the sound waves and the heat-hopping mechanism first theorized by Einstein characterize a two-channel model, and not only in this material, but in several other materials that also demonstrate ultralow conductivity,” said ORNL materials scientist David Parker.

For now, heat-hopping may only be detectable in excellent thermal insulators. “However, this heat-hopping channel may well be present in other crystalline solids, creating a new lever for managing heat,” he said.
First comes detecting it, then comes trying to benefit from it, and finally attempts at controlling it.  Without control, it's just a phenomenon. 

(New research about the transfer of heat—fundamental to all materials—suggests that in thermal insulators, heat is conveyed by atomic vibrations and by random hopping of energy from atom to atom.  Here the vibrational coupling is shown as the light blue springs and thermal hopping as the yellow arcs. - ORNL)


  1. I may have missed this subtle detail in thermodynamics and nuke physics classes ... or more likely suffered a lack of thorough understanding ... but this model is how I always thought of heat transfer at the atomic lattice scale - both transfer by vibration (conduction/diffusion) and "random" transfer of energy (low freq photons in wave mode - basic diffusion analysis not being totally sufficient at lattice scale).

    Or perhaps I unconsciously assumed the Einstein theory was correct and I didn't realize the theory hadn't been verified.

    The more I study, the less I know. The less I know, the more I want to study.


    1. My thermodynamics class was too bogged down in steam tables to talk about anything interesting like this. As I recall decades later.

      It seems to me almost like a quantum effect, and I was mostly surprised that this appears to be a new experimental verification. A cursory search didn't turn this up, but I'm honestly not convinced it's the first time the effect has been seen. It was, though, the most interesting tech/science story I had in the stack.

  2. Sometimes it is just a question of our not being able to measure something with enough accuracy. "We think this is what we are seeing..." but it either lost in electrical noise in the measuring apparatus, or it falls within confidence bands.

    LIGO had a lot trouble with this and had to go through at least 1 major upgrade - not including the 30 or 40 years of prototypes before they could see a signal not lost in the noise of the apparatus itself.

    The final experiment to prove/disprove the existence of the luminiferous aether was done sometime in the late 1950s or 1960s, because before that we couldn't measure stuff accurately enough. This is even though the theoreticians stopped worrying about it in the 1890s.

    1. "In theory, there's no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is a difference." (Or something to that effect.) Yogi Berra.

    2. The observation about measurement accuracy and signal to noise ratio is a really important one, and may summarize the results in just one line. They were apparently comparing predictions from a model that just included atomic vibrations and were able to see a difference between predicted and observed heat flow that might have been too small to detect before this.

    3. Oh, and the way I heard it was, "the difference between theory and practice in practice is greater than the difference between theory and practice in theory".