What is the smallest engine in the world for?
The smallest engine in the world is a calcium ion and is about 10 billion times smaller than a car engine.
When we talk about motors, we inevitably think of a complex mechanical system. A network of interconnected pieces, which allow the input of a fuel to produce energy which finally translates into movement.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the engine has been a basic instrument for the modernization of societies. Among all those invented, the combustion engine has taken the top positions in popularity. With these types of systems Millions of cars have been powered throughout the 20th century as well as other means of transportation.
It is true that combustion is undergoing a complete change towards a more sustainable alternative, as is the electric motor. This has evolved from small electronic devices to cars and is now even present in heavy vehicles or ships.
None of these types of engine is related to the system created at Trinity College, Dublin. In this case the object It is found on a microscopic scale, even more so, atomic. The engine in question is a single calcium ion, electrically charged. Its movement is its intrinsic spin, which is used to convert heat –absorbed from laser beams– into oscillations or vibrations of the ion.
The vibrations make it possible to capture the useful energy generated by the motor. This is stored in units called ‘quanta’. Here we enter the field of quantum mechanics. The team of researchers has observed that their system, which would be the smallest engine in the world works faster or slower, depending on the energy input.
It is not the first miniscule sized engine to be discovered. Because at this level –atomic or molecular scale, at most– one cannot speak of building but rather of experimenting and discovering.
At the University of Cambridge, they embedded gold particles in a polymer gel. An energy supply based on laser was applied to the result. The effect the beam had on the array was to expel water from the polymer and bring the gold particles closer together, which in turn attract each other. The researchers managed a constant expansion contraction movement. He had managed to create a movement producing system a million times smaller than an ant.
Scientists at Trinity College Dublin went further. The size of its calcium ion is sensibly smaller. His achievement concerns the search for more efficient computing. Nanoscale heat management is one of the bottlenecks to building more powerful computing systems.