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Quantum thermodynamical framework for understanding off-equilibrium properties of living systems

   Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences

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  Dr Andrea Rocco  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


School of Maths and Physics

Project Description

In his 1944 book “What is Life?” [1], Erwin Schrödinger argued that organisms stay alive by staying off-equilibrium. They do this by taking in low entropy free energy from their environment, which allows them to maintain structure and complexity. However, questions remain open on how this out-of-equilibrium dynamics are realized: Is it a purely classical phenomenon, or does it need to be grounded in the quantum realm?

In living systems quantum features are expected to dissipate very quickly into the environment through a process known as decoherence, preventing any evolutionary mechanism from capitalizing on any quantum effects. The search for mechanisms which inhibit decoherence, and conversely the attempt to measure quantum coherences directly in living systems, are a fascinating and growing field of investigation, and yet beset by almost insurmountable technical difficulties.

In this project the candidate will take a different approach and use thermodynamics as a proxy of any underlying quantumness in the system. While classical dynamics are expected to translate into classical thermodynamics, possible underlying quantum effects will reflect into quantum thermodynamical features. Maintenance of coherence should manifest itself in specific quantum versions of fluctuation-dissipation relations and possible violation of the second law for quantum entropy.  

The candidate will adopt the theory of open quantum systems [2] to build a new thermodynamic framework that goes beyond the conventional regime of validity of macroscopic thermodynamics, and accounts for non-equilibrium dynamics originating at the quantum level. At Surrey we have already identified non-Markovianity as a key ingredient for the survival of coherences in open quantum systems [3], and we will use this framework to derive the ensuing quantum thermodynamics. Our goal is to indentify criteria to distinguish classical from quantum underlying dynamics. 

The project will be jointly supervised by Dr Andrea Rocco ([Email Address Removed], open quantum systems and statistical mechanics), Dr Marian Florescu ([Email Address Removed], nanophotonics, spintronics and quantum optics), and Dr Youngchan Kim ([Email Address Removed], quantum biology). 

[1] E. Schroedinger, What is Life?, Cambridge University Press, 1992.  

[2] H.P. Breuer & F. Petruccione, The Theory of Open Quantum Systems, Oxford University Press, 2002.

[3] S. Lally, N. Werren, J. Al-Khalili, A. Rocco, Master equation for non-Markovian quantum Brownian motion: The emergence of lateral coherences, PRA 105, 012209 (2022).

Candidate Profile

Applicants should have a MS degree or a 1st class degree in Physics, with knowledge in the broad contexts of quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics. Previous knowledge of quantum thermodynamics is an advantage.


The studentship will provide a stipend at UKRI rates (currently £17,668 for 2022/23) and tuition fees for 3.5 years. An additional bursary of £1700 per annum for the duration of the studentship will be offered to exceptional candidates.

How to Apply

Applications should be submitted via the Quantum Biology PhD programme page. In place of a research proposal you should upload a document stating the title of the projects (up to 2) that you wish to apply for and the name(s) of the relevant supervisor. You must upload your full CV and any transcripts of previous academic qualifications. You should enter ’Faculty Funded Competition’ under funding type.

You may opt to apply for a single project or for 2 of these Centre of Quantum Biology studentship projects.

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