The engine a single calcium ion is electrically charged, which makes it easy to trap using electric fields. (Representational image)
The engine a single calcium ion is electrically charged, which makes it easy to trap using electric fields. (Representational image)

German Physicist create world’s smallest engine

In the future, such devices could be incorporated into other technologies in order to recycle waste heat and thus improve energy efficiency.
Berlin | By Press Trust of India
PUBLISHED ON AUG 22, 2019 04:08 PM IST

Scientists have built the world’s smallest engine -- a single calcium ion which is about ten billion times smaller than a car engine.

The research, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, explains how random fluctuations affect the operation of microscopic machines.

In the future, such devices could be incorporated into other technologies in order to recycle waste heat and thus improve energy efficiency, according to researchers led by Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany.

The engine -- a single calcium ion -- is electrically charged, which makes it easy to trap using electric fields.

The working substance of the engine is the ion’s “intrinsic spin” or its angular momentum.

This spin is used to convert heat absorbed from laser beams into oscillations, or vibrations, of the trapped ion, researchers said.

These vibrations act like a “flywheel”, which captures the useful energy generated by the engine, they said.

This energy is stored in discrete units called “quanta”, as predicted by quantum mechanics.

“The flywheel allows us to actually measure the power output of an atomic-scale motor, resolving single quanta of energy, for the first time,” said Mark Mitchison from Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.

Starting the flywheel from rest -- or, more precisely, from its “ground state” (the lowest energy in quantum physics), the team observed the little engine forcing the flywheel to run faster and faster.

The state of the ion was accessible in the experiment, allowing the physicists to precisely assess the energy deposition process.

“This experiment and theory ushers in a new era for the investigation of the energetics of technologies based on quantum theory, which is a topic at the core of our group’s research,” said John Goold, Assistant Professor in Physics at Trinity.

“Heat management at the nanoscale is one of the fundamental bottlenecks for faster and more efficient computing,” Goold said.

“Understanding how thermodynamics can be applied in such microscopic settings is of paramount importance for future technologies,” he said.

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