“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,” said Clemens Bechinger, a physicist at the University of Stuttgart and Fellow of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany. The research team plans to explore the range of its power output. And use it, perhaps, to power a micromachine.
The achievement surprised even the researchers. That’s because the tiny engine — just 3 micrometers in size (1 micrometer being 0.001 of a millimeter) — runs into new problems in its microscopic world that cause it to sputter.
The engine even ran with the same efficiency as its full-size counterparts under full load. “Although our machine does not provide any useful work as yet, there are no thermodynamic obstacles, in principle, which prohibit this in small dimensions,” Bechinger said.
The conversion of energy into mechanical work is essential for almost any industrial process. The original description of classical heat engines by Sadi Carnot in 1824 has largely shaped our understanding of work and heat exchange during macroscopic thermodynamic processes1. Equipped with our present-day ability to design and control mechanical devices at micro- and nanometre length scales, we are now in a position to explore the limitations of classical thermodynamics, arising on scales for which thermal fluctuations are important. Here we demonstrate the experimental realization of a microscopic heat engine, comprising a single colloidal particle subject to a time-dependent optical laser trap. The work associated with the system is a fluctuating quantity, and depends strongly on the cycle duration time, τ, which in turn determines the efficiency of our heat engine. Our experiments offer a rare insight into the conversion of thermal to mechanical energy on a microscopic level, and pave the way for the design of future micromechanical machines.
“We successfully decreased the size of the essential parts of a heat engine, such as the working gas and piston, to only a few micrometres and then assembled them to a machine,” says Valentin Blickle. The working gas in the Stuttgart-based experiment thus no longer consists of countless molecules, but of only one individual plastic bead measuring a mere three micrometres (one micrometre corresponds to one thousandth of a millimetre) which floats in water. Since the colloid particle is around 10,000 times larger than an atom, researchers can observe its motion directly in a microscope.
The physicists replaced the piston, which moves periodically up and down in a cylinder, by a focused laser beam whose intensity is periodically varied. The optical forces of the laser limit the motion of the plastic particle to a greater and a lesser degree, like the compression and expansion of the gas in the cylinder of a large heat engine. The particle then does work on the optical laser field. In order for the contributions to the work not to cancel each other out during compression and expansion, these must take place at different temperatures. This is done by heating the system from the outside during the expansion process, just like the boiler of a steam engine. The researchers replaced the coal fire of an old-fashioned steam engine with a further laser beam that heats the water suddenly, but also lets it cool down as soon as it is switched off.
The fact that the Stuttgart machine runs rough is down to the water molecules which surround the plastic bead. The water molecules are in constant motion due to their temperature and continually collide with the microparticle. In these random collisions, the plastic particle constantly exchanges energy with its surroundings on the same order of magnitude as the micromachine converts energy into work. “This effect means that the amount of energy gained varies greatly from cycle to cycle, and even brings the machine to a standstill in the extreme case,” explains Valentin Blickle. Since macroscopic machines convert around 20 orders of magnitude more energy, the tiny collision energies of the smallest particles in them are not important.
The physicists are all the more astonished that the machine converts as much energy per cycle on average despite the varying power, and even runs with the same efficiency as its macroscopic counterpart under full load. “Our experiments provide us with an initial insight into the energy balance of a heat engine operating in microscopic dimensions. Although our machine does not provide any useful work as yet, there are no thermodynamic obstacles, in principle, which prohibit this in small dimensions,” says Clemens Bechinger. This is surely good news for the design of reliable, highly efficient micromachines