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Scientific Reports


Preparing a quantum system in a pure state is ultimately limited by the nature of the system's evolution in the presence of its environment and by the initial state of the environment itself. We show that, when the system and environment are initially uncorrelated and arbitrary joint unitary dynamics is allowed, the system may be purified up to a certain (possibly arbitrarily small) threshold if and only if its environment, either natural or engineered, contains a “virtual subsystem” which has the same dimension and is in a state with the desired purity. Beside providing a unified understanding of quantum purification dynamics in terms of a “generalized swap process,” our results shed light on the significance of a no-go theorem for exact ground-state cooling, as well as on the quantum resources needed for achieving an intended purification task.