Itty bitty engine puts a single atom to work

heat engines

Heat engines, big and small, turn heat into mechanical work. The steam engine (left) pushes a piston that turns a wheel. A pint-sized version (right) sets an atom in motion to perform work.

ILLUSTRATIONS: J. HIRSHFELD; SOURCES: RACHEL CASIDAY AND REGINA FREY/WASHINGTON UNIV. IN ST. LOUIS; J. ROSSNAGEL, ET AL/ARXIV.ORG 2015

A team of scientists has built a heat engine out of a single atom.

Heat engines, like steam engines or internal combustion engines, convert heat into motion. To create the minuscule engine, physicist Johannes Roßnagel of University of Mainz and colleagues heated and cooled a calcium ion with an electric field and a laser, causing it to move and do a tiny amount of work. They report their results in the April 15 Science.

Read more about this and other scaled-down engines in “Ultrasmall engines bend second law of thermodynamics.” 

Emily Conover

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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