Absolute zero is the lowest limit of the thermodynamic temperature scale, a state at which the enthalpy and entropy of a cooled ideal gas reach their minimum value, taken as zero kelvins. The fundamental particles of nature have minimum vibrational motion, retaining only quantum mechanical, zero-point energy-induced particle motion.
The theoretical temperature is determined by extrapolating the ideal gas law; by international agreement, absolute zero is taken as −273.15 degrees on the Celsius scale, which equals −459.67 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. The corresponding Kelvin and Rankine temperature scales set their zero points at absolute zero by definition.
Temperatures that are expressed as negative numbers on the familiar Celsius or Fahrenheit scales are simply colder than the zero points of those scales. Certain systems can achieve truly negative temperatures; that is, their thermodynamic temperature (expressed in kelvins) can be of a negative quantity.
A system with a truly negative temperature is not colder than absolute zero. Rather, a system with a negative temperature is hotter than any system with a positive temperature, in the sense that if a negative-temperature system and a positive-temperature system come in contact, heat flows from the negative to the positive-temperature system.
Most familiar systems cannot achieve negative temperatures because adding energy always increases their entropy.
However, some systems have a maximum amount of energy that they can hold, and as they approach that maximum energy their entropy actually begins to decrease. Because temperature is defined by the relationship between energy and entropy, such a system’s temperature becomes negative, even though energy is being added.
It is commonly thought of as the lowest temperature possible, but it is not the lowest enthalpy state possible, because all real substances begin to depart from the ideal gas when cooled as they approach the change of state to liquid, and then to solid; and the sum of the enthalpy of vaporization (gas to liquid) and enthalpy of fusion (liquid to solid) exceeds the ideal gas’s change in enthalpy to absolute zero. In the quantum-mechanical description, matter (solid) at absolute zero is in its ground state, the point of lowest internal energy.
The laws of thermodynamics indicate that absolute zero cannot be reached using only thermodynamic means, because the temperature of the substance being cooled approaches the temperature of the cooling agent asymptotically, and a system at absolute zero still possesses quantum mechanical zero-point energy, the energy of its ground state at absolute zero. The kinetic energy of the ground state cannot be removed.
Absolute zero cannot be achieved, although it is possible to reach temperatures close to it through the use of cryocoolers, dilution refrigerators, and nuclear adiabatic demagnetization. The use of laser cooling has produced temperatures less than a billionth of a kelvin.
The current world record for effective temperatures was set in 2021 at 38 picokelvins (pK), or 0.000000000038 of a kelvin, through matter-wave lensing of rubidium Bose–Einstein condensates.