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Engineering researchers win industry award on thermodynamics

January 31, 2013

Charles E. Smith and Michael von Spakovsky
Charles E. Smith and Michael von Spakovsky

Two Virginia Tech College of Engineering researchers have won an Edward F. Obert Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for a breakthrough research paper on intrinsic quantum thermodynamics.

Winning the 2012 Obert Award are Michael von Spakovsky, professor with the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Charles E. Smith, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Their winning paper is titled, “Comparison of the non-equilibrium predictions of Intrinsic Quantum Thermodynamics at the atomistic level with experimental evidence.”

The award recognizes an outstanding paper on thermodynamics authored during the preceding two calendar years and presented at the Advanced Energy Systems Division’s International Mechanical Engineering Congress symposium on energy systems analysis. The award includes a $5,000 cash prize. Von Spakovsy says through the paper, “we are challenging the status quo.”

“The theory of intrinsic quantum thermodynamics is an attempt to combine quantum mechanics and thermodynamics into a single unified theory, recognizing that quantum mechanics is correct but incomplete, that is, it lacks the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which in effect says that real processes or changes to any given item do not occur reversibly,” von Spakovsky said.

“Up to now, current thought has been that the entropy – a consequence of the Second Law -- is not a fundamental property of matter in the way inertial mass, momentum, and energy are, but instead a reflection of what the observer knows or does not know about the state of the entity being studied, be it a particle or a group of particles. In the view of intrinsic quantum thermodynamics, this is not correct. The entropy is indeed a fundamental property and a measure of the quality of the energy, which degrades as the entropy increases.”

He added, “Describing irreversible phenomena and increasing entropy, as is conventionally done using an equation of motion based on that of quantum mechanics, whose underlying dynamics is reversible, is paradoxical and begs the question of why a microscopic world, which in the view of quantum mechanics is reversible, would result in any irreversible phenomena at all. In the view of intrinsic quantum thermodynamics, no such paradox exists.”

Von Spakovsky is editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Thermodynamics, and associate editor of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Journal of Fuel Cell Science and Technology. He joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 1997, and serves as director of the Virginia Tech’s Center for Energy Systems Research.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Auburn University in 1974, and a master’s degree and doctoral degree in, respectively, 1980 and 1986, each from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Originally from Mulkilteo, Wash., Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from University of California, Santa Barbara, and previously worked as a software programmer in Silicon Valley before coming to Virginia Tech where he earned his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering in 2012.