UC Berkeley researchers discover new way to transfer heat in vacuums

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UC Berkeley researchers found that heat can be transferred through a vacuum without light, a phenomenon that has traditionally been considered improbable.

According to Stanford postdoctoral researcher and former UC Berkeley graduate student researcher Hao-Kun Li, it was once believed that thermal radiation, the emission of heat through light energy, was the only way to transfer heat in a vacuum, or a space without any matter. The study, however, which was published Wednesday in Nature, shows that energy can still traverse a vacuum that lacks light.

“The underlying principle is that vacuum is never totally empty nor silent, but filled with tiny fluctuations of quantum fields,” Li said in an email.

In other words, there is no such thing as truly empty space. One of the study’s researchers, former UC Berkeley postdoctoral scholar King Yan Fong, said in a Berkeley News article that this is because of the presence of quantum field fluctuations in a vacuum.

This presence allows for the Casimir interaction, meaning that one object in motion can set another nearby object into motion, even in a vacuum, Fong said in the article.

The researchers used two silicon nitride membranes placed a few hundred nanometers apart in a vacuum chamber to measure the transfer of heat between the two membranes, according to the article.

While the effect is only significant across short-scale distances, Li said the study could open up new possibilities in technology.

Historically, nanoscale electronic devices and computer chips were hampered by heating issues that limited their performance, according to Li. The findings of this study, however, could potentially lead to new forms of thermal management in integrated circuits using the quantum properties of vacuums.

The findings also suggest sound might be able to travel through a vacuum, according to the article.

Contact Blake Evans at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Blake_J_Evans.