Information can be transformed into energy, demonstrates an experiment reported online this week in Nature Physics. This work puts into practice a thought experiment that has been discussed controversially during the past 150 years.
Masaki Sano and colleagues explore connections between statistical mechanics and information processing in order to study a much debated idea which appeared to violate the laws of thermodynamics. James Clerk Maxwell suggested in the mid-nineteenth century that a hypothetical intelligence can use a detailed knowledge about the state of a gas to separate hot, energy-rich molecules from cooler, low-energy ones. This suggests that work can be extracted from heat, something that is thermodynamically forbidden. Later work showed that it is the information about the system this is used to gain energy.
Until now Maxwell’s idea has remained a theoretical construct, however, this team demonstrate such an information-to-energy conversion experimentally.