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The Smallest Engine in the World Is Literally an Ion

David Grossman
Photo credit: Trinity College Dublin

From Popular Mechanics

  • Scientists say they've created the world's smallest engine: a single calcium ion.
  • The engine is 10 billion times smaller than a car engine.
  • The physicists behind the ion already made the previous smallest engine in the world, which ran on a single atom, in 2016.

An international team of physicists have created what they're calling the world's smallest engine. How small is it? The entire engine is a single calcium ion, making it around 10 billion times smaller than a car engine.

The experimental engine was conceived by an international team led by Professor Ferdinand Schmidt-Kaler and Ulrich Poschinger of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. The engine is electrically charged, which makes it easy to trap using electric fields. The moving parts of the engine are the ion's "intrinsic spin." On an atomic level, spin is a measurement of an atom's angular momentum.

Within the engine, spin is used to capture and convert heat absorbed from laser beams into oscillations, or vibrations, of the trapped ion. The vibrations act as a flywheel and its energy is placed into units called "quanta," 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," says study coauthor Mark Mitchison, of the QuSys group at Trinity College Dublin, in a press statement.

When the engine is resting, it resides at what is known as the "ground state," the lowest and most stable energy in quantum physics. Then, when hit with the lasers, the team was able to observe the ionic engine pushing the flywheel to run faster and faster.

"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," says John Goold, an Assistant Professor in Physics at Trinity, in the statement. "Heat management at the nanoscale is one of the fundamental bottlenecks for faster and more efficient computing. Understanding how thermodynamics can be applied in such microscopic settings is of paramount importance for future technologies."

Here at Popular Mechanics, we're pro tiny engine. There are tiny rotary engines made out of paper, tiny V8 engines made out of paper, tiny engines that can run on WD-40, and tiny combustion engines. But perhaps nobody is a bigger fan of tiny engines than the physicists at Johannes Gutenberg University, which is sometimes called the University of Mainz. In 2016, scientists there created what was then the smallest engine in the world, which ran on a single atom.

Now, with a single ion, it appears that they've broken their own record.

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