Issue 10, 2016

In command of non-equilibrium


The second law of thermodynamics is well known for determining the direction of spontaneous processes in the laboratory, life and the universe. It is therefore often called the arrow of time. Less often discussed but just as important is the effect of kinetic barriers which intercept equilibration and preserve highly ordered, high energy non-equilibrium states. Examples of such states are many modern materials produced intentionally for technological applications. Furthermore, all living organisms fuelled directly by photosynthesis and those fuelled indirectly by living on high energy nutrition represent preserved non-equilibrium states. The formation of these states represents the local reversal of the arrow of time which only seemingly violates the second law. It has been known since the seminal work of Prigogine that the stabilisation of these states inevitably requires the dissipation of energy in the form of waste heat. It is this feature of waste heat dissipation following the input of energy that drives all processes occurring at a non-zero rate. Photosynthesis, replication of living organisms, self-assembly, crystal shape engineering and distillation have this principle in common with the well-known Carnot cycle in the heat engine. Drawing on this analogy, we subsume these essential and often sophisticated driven processes under the term machinery of life.

Graphical abstract: In command of non-equilibrium

Supplementary files

Article information

Article type
Tutorial Review
16 Feb 2016
First published
05 May 2016
This article is Open Access
Creative Commons BY license

Chem. Soc. Rev., 2016,45, 2768-2784

In command of non-equilibrium

E. Roduner and S. G. Radhakrishnan, Chem. Soc. Rev., 2016, 45, 2768 DOI: 10.1039/C6CS00115G

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Licence. You can use material from this article in other publications without requesting further permissions from the RSC, provided that the correct acknowledgement is given.

Read more about how to correctly acknowledge RSC content.

Social activity