World’s smallest steam engine developed by German scientists, made of a single particle

By on Dec 12, 2011 in Amazing, Europe, Science Comments

A team of German scientists have reportedly developed recently the so-called world’s smallest steam engine, which was made of a single particle and has a size of around three micrometers wide.

World’s smallest steam engine principle
Illustration Credit: Fritz Höffeler/Art For Science

As noted at science news sites on Sunday, December 11, 2011, researchers at the University of Stuttgart and the Stuttgart-based Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems have developed the smallest steam engine in the world.

According to reports, the micro steam engine was built using a laser beam and a single particle floating in water but has the complete function of a normal-size steam engine and performed well, all factors being considered.

“We’ve developed the world’s smallest steam engine, or to be more precise the smallest Stirling engine, and found that the machine really does perform work,” Clemens Bechinger was quoted on reports, a University of Stuttgart professor and played a big role on the project.

“This was not necessarily to be expected, because the machine is so small that its motion is hindered by microscopic processes which are of no consequence in the macroworld.” Bechinger added, who is a professor at the Fellow of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems.

“We successfully decreased the size of the essential parts of a heat engine, such as the working gas and piston, to only a few micrometers and then assembled them to a machine,” Valentin Blickle reportedly said, who is a colleague of Bechinger and is also part of the project.

Apparently the so-called world’s smallest steam engine was inspired by the classical heat engines invented by Sadi Carnot in 1824 and the Stirling engine invented by Robert Stirling about 200 years ago.

On the recent experiment, in which the full report was published at Nature Physics journal that day, the German physicists replaced the piston by a focused laser beam whose intensity is periodically varied.

The optical forces of the laser beam limit the action of the plastic particle to a greater and a lesser degree, similar to the compression and expansion of the gas in the cylinder of a big heat engine.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bechinger noted that their machine does not provide any useful work as yet but emphasized that there are no thermodynamic barriers, in principle, which prevent it in small dimensions.

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