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Scientists Create World's Smallest Steam Engine

samzenpus posted more than 2 years ago | from the I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can dept.

Technology 84

First time accepted submitter Virtucon writes "German physicists say they've built a heat engine measuring only a few micrometers across which works as well as a normal-sized version — although it sputters, they admit. Researchers at the University of Stuttgart and the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems say that the engine does basically work, meaning there's nothing, in principle, to prevent the construction of highly efficient, small heat engines."

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84 comments

New Train scale soon to follow (5, Funny)

Tekfactory (937086) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344324)

What was it Sheldon said on big bang theory, half the size, twice the fun.

Re:New Train scale soon to follow (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38344556)

Yes, but, can it play the violin?

Re:New Train scale soon to follow (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38349284)

-1? Mods obviously are lacking in a sense of humor today. Additionally they obviously lack appreciation for the level of complexity in designing and creating a real violin in that size range but even more so a mechanical device capable of playing it.

Any country or blue grass fans here? Recall some old fiddlers work on certain old train songs? Ever ride an old steam engine pulled train and listen to the "music" of the rails and engine? Bah, kids these days, get off my tracks!

Re:New Train scale soon to follow (1)

ackthpt (218170) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344672)

What was it Sheldon said on big bang theory, half the size, twice the fun.

Smaller than O-Scale :-|

Smaller than HO-Scale :-|

Even smaller than N-Scale :-\

And smaller than Z-Scale :-/

So it must be .. ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha Scale 8-)

Sputtering (4, Funny)

PopeAlien (164869) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344338)

"although it sputters, they admit."

Isn't that exactly what a steam engine is supposed to do?

Re:Sputtering (1)

ackthpt (218170) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344684)

"although it sputters, they admit."

Isn't that exactly what a steam engine is supposed to do?

Not quite. Poor seals, inconsistent heating, probably mineral build-up in the boiler, poor maintenance. They're going to need some imps to sort it all out.

Re:Sputtering (1)

h5inz (1284916) | more than 2 years ago | (#38352548)

So, anyone getting far enough with reading the article to reach the "..or to be more precise the smallest Stirling engine" part?

Next up (4, Funny)

ExploHD (888637) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344372)

They'll be building a minature train that will span an entire millimeter and haul milligrams of freight

Re:Next up (5, Funny)

joocemann (1273720) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344488)

The mexican cartels gotta innovate. Thousands of micro trains hauling micrograms of coke across the border in microtunnels!

you can't stop what people want.

Re:Next up (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38344642)

Micrograms are a unit of measure more conducive to LSD smuggling.

Re:Next up (1)

cizoozic (1196001) | more than 2 years ago | (#38345472)

Micrograms are a unit of measure more conducive to LSD smuggling.

Sounds good to me. In that case, I'll be waiting at Terrapin Station.

Re:Next up (1)

mcgrew (92797) | more than 2 years ago | (#38358216)

Depends on how many trains and how long they are. Tons are made of micrograms, just lots and lots of micrograms.

You could probably grind cocaine up enough to ship microgram quantities, but good luck transporting micrograms of pot (or at least, selling it to anyone after it's shipped).

Re:Next up (2)

benjamindees (441808) | more than 2 years ago | (#38345014)

That's an ingenious idea, actually. A pipeline a couple of inches in diameter could transport a ridiculous amount of drugs, wouldn't be too expensive to drill, and would be pretty much undetectable.

Re:Next up (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38345144)

For any idea thad you imagine for smuggling, there need to be a few implementations already working...

Re:Next up (1)

Dr. Spork (142693) | more than 2 years ago | (#38345254)

Watch the last season of Trailer Park Boys and you will see exactly this: A model train, the Swayze Express, brings dope through a pipe under the St. Laurence River into the USA, and cheap cigarettes are sent back by Sebastian Bach.

Re:Next up (1)

Capt.DrumkenBum (1173011) | more than 2 years ago | (#38345916)

That was the most awesome idea in the best TV show of all time.
When I moved into a trailer park, a good friend of mine knocked on my door the first night, fully dressed as Julian, right down to the rum and coke in hand. I fell on the floor laughing.

Re:Next up (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38345418)

Pipelines are the most efficient method of transport.

Re:Next up (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38346898)

Most people don't like riding in a pipeline, though, so they'll pay for a seat on a bus, train, or plane.

Re:Next up (1)

durrr (1316311) | more than 2 years ago | (#38345704)

An ant-eater could if it's delivered on microtrains. Especially a coked-up anteater.
The cartels will be mighty pissed when this gets out.

Re:Next up (1)

vikingpower (768921) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344590)

That makes one think. If you miniaturized it enough, you could have characteristics any train operator would die for to have: your train could be in more than one location at a given moment of time !

I have a vision... (1)

vikingpower (768921) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344382)

...of millions of nano-ized steam engines swarming through my home, heating it, doing all the work --- and throwing it back into the 19th century. Hm. I'll consider growing a beard with whiskers, to fit into the picture. Hm.

Re:I have a vision... (1)

Migraineman (632203) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344628)

I've got SteamPunk running through my veins ... no seriously ... inside me. No, that's not a metaphor anymore.

(*twirls handlebar moustache *)

Re:I have a vision... (1)

GungaDan (195739) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344954)

Just out of curiosity, what else would you grown a beard with? Bees?

Re:I have a vision... (1)

Surt (22457) | more than 2 years ago | (#38345282)

Whiskers can also refer to a specific growth pattern. E.g. out the sides of the top lip, ala cat whiskers. So he's talking about beard plus that.

No engineers involved in this job (5, Insightful)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344424)

Obviously no engineers involved in this job

We've developed the world's smallest steam engine, or to be more precise the smallest Stirling engine

That's kind of a big mistake. The /. car analogy would be like "eh, we built a car, or maybe a truck, whats the difference". Diesel or gas is actually too similar to be a fair comparison. Eh, I bought me a new computer, a PC, or maybe a mac, or perhaps a thomas the tank engine alphabet learning laptop, whatever, its a new computer, or maybe etch a sketch, i donno.

The article also has the most long winded intentionally obtuse explanation of brownian motion I've ever read. I think in this modern post 911 world or whatever pompous rot, if your writing sucks more than 10 units worse than wikipedia, you should be forced to just include a quote from wiki and be done with it.

Re:No engineers involved in this job (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38344694)

> if your writing sucks more than 10 units worse than wikipedia, you should be forced to just include a quote from wiki and be done with it.

Seriously. ;-)

Re:No engineers involved in this job (2, Insightful)

ByOhTek (1181381) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344740)

From the Wikipedia article, a Sterling Engine can be a steam engine. Given there was not really any uncertainty in their comment, a better analogy might be. Brackets to make the points obvious

I bought a PC [Macs are still personal computers, just a specific brand, usually not called PCs simply because they want to stand out], or more specifically, an Apple. [not all Apple products are personal computers, in fact, most of their market is from other kinds of devices].

Re:No engineers involved in this job (0)

91degrees (207121) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344886)

Apple Macs aren't IBM's even though Apple is an international company that makes machines used in businesses. Their processors are indeed Advanced Micro Devices, in fact, amongst the most advanced around, but they're not AMD processors.

These are brand names. PC was also a brand name.

Re:No engineers involved in this job (1)

mcgrew (92797) | more than 2 years ago | (#38360174)

Wrong. PC isn't a brand name, it's an acronym for "personal computer". The brand name was IBM-PC, its successor was IBM-XT. IBM never trademarked "PC" or Compaq wouldn't have been able to call their personal computers "PCs".

Re:No engineers involved in this job (5, Informative)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#38345310)

From the Wikipedia article, a Sterling Engine can be a steam engine

Incorrect. Not even close. Stirling engines basically rely on the expansion and contraction of a gas at different temperatures, usually by moving the gas between hot and cold areas using some displacer gadget, and usually a heat regen unit it between to increase efficiency. The resulting pressure variations in the overall system, make the typical crankshaft arrangement rotate.

Steamies more or less work like a simple air engine, here's an intense pressure on one side of a piston and open to the air or to a vacuum on the other, now reverse the valves in time with the crank and off you go. Not entirely unlike a 2-cycle IC engine, although stereotypically ICs cylinders are almost all single acting and steamies are stereotypically mostly double acting (like having two pistons in one cylinder, back to back in opposite directions, sorta kinda). You can condense the steam outside the cylinder to make a vacuum but its considered extremely bad form to condense inside the cylinder, hydro-lock and kaboom are inevitable... which is why steam locomotives put on such a show with open cylinder drain valves when starting up, start up with those drains closed on a cold cylinder, the cylinder fills with condensed water, and bang it shatters open once it hydrolocks. Once the cylinder is hotter than boiling water its all good and they close the cylinder drains.

Note that you can play word games. Instead of providing heat to one side of a very low power stirling using an electric heater, you could sit it atop a hot steam radiator, making it "steam powered stirling". Or you could even pipe raw heating steam around the hot cylinder as a heat source, instead of a flame or electric heating element. Or, you could play games and an electrically heated stirling got its electricity from a steam turbine at the local nuke plant, so its technically a steam powered stirling, or more accurately a nuclear powered stirling. Possibly, instead of using air or helium in your Stirling like a normal engineer, you could use steam of various levels of superheat, so you could have 400 degree steam in the "hot" side and 300 degree steam in the "cold" side. But thats just playing word games to obfuscate the actual thermodynamics of the situation.

Re:No engineers involved in this job (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 2 years ago | (#38347436)

Steamies more or less work like a simple air engine, here's an intense pressure on one side of a piston and open to the air or to a vacuum on the other, now reverse the valves in time with the crank and off you go.

Except of course for all those steam engines which use turbines and/or a closed cycle steam loop - like your local coal powered electric plant, or the average nuclear powered submarine.
 

Note that you can play word games.

Says the guy who mistakes the subset 'locomotives' for the class 'steam power'.

Re:No engineers involved in this job (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38347916)

I always secretly believed that the "warp core" on the Enterprise was actually just a steam turbine heated by a matter/antimatter reaction. :)

Re:No engineers involved in this job (1)

The Askylist (2488908) | more than 2 years ago | (#38349010)

Newcomen might disagree with your assertion that it is extremely bad form to condense the steam inside the cylinder - that is how his steam engines worked. Not until Watt invented his engine was anything other than condensation inside the cylinder even conceived.

Re:No engineers involved in this job (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#38353942)

Gotta put "worked" in quotes for Newcomen, efficiency was awful, and I believe there were historical hydrolock incidents although given the insanely low speed and low power output and low operating pressures, damage wasn't too severe (mostly a lot of yelling, WTF why isn't the water pump working, etc).

You know what this means, don't you? (2)

Jason Levine (196982) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344464)

Nano-Steampunk Technology!

Re:You know what this means, don't you? (1)

ackthpt (218170) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344718)

Nano-Steampunk Technology!

I'm certaian Studio Foglio could make something of this .. maybe even son nano jagrs.

Re:You know what this means, don't you? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38347296)

It's vaporware.

Re:You know what this means, don't you? (1)

treeves (963993) | more than 2 years ago | (#38347500)

All they need to do is make a few of them and use them to power a nano-knitting machine and it's a shoe-in for Boing-Boing invention of the year.

impressively small (3, Informative)

Trepidity (597) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344480)

Afaik, even considerably larger miniature heat engines have significant problems, which are only recently being solved, but most of the existing research is on things more in the millimeter to centimeter range. I suppose micrometer engines might face different problems entirely, but quite impressive.

For example, a discussion of difficulties in building a miniaturized combustion-based heat engine:

The problem being faced by micro-miniature heat engines is that, as the size is reduced, the surface-area-to-volume ratio of the combustor begins to dominate the combustion process. Both the chemical reactivity of the wall and the heat transfer to the wall affect the radical recombination and generation rates of the reactants. If important radicals such as hydroxyl or methyl are destroyed at or near the wall too quickly, the combustion process can be quenched. The thermal and chemical quenching pathways are strongly coupled, so that very small changes in temperature or chemical activity of the wall can lead to significant changes in radical concentration near the wall, making gas phase combustion using air as the oxidant difficult to sustain below a critical length scale (i.e. quenching distance) of a few millimeters (Kuo, 1986).

Source: This paper (PDF, 2005) [illinois.edu]

And a working-in-simulation model of a 65 x 22 cm Stirling engine: from a 2008 paper [doi.org]

Next... (1)

RandomAvatar (2487198) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344528)

Now all they have to do is build a boat at that scale so they can have the worlds smallest steamboat! You know it will be done eventually....

Re:Next... (1)

vikingpower (768921) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344602)

Yeah, only a steamboat will work at that scale. Air molecules would punch holes through the sails of a miniatured clipper. Alas.

Who funds this kind of research? (1)

Synerg1y (2169962) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344542)

All I'm saying is if I was powering tiny machines, I'd look into an electric field or an external heat source (ex. human body), but now correct me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't this require a constant input of water defeating the portability?

Concrete or asphalt applications? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38344564)

apply at the molecular (or less, grin, bonding)... and imbed as a construction material (including conductivity) in asphalt or concrete for power generation... free street light power... whole suit of things.

How Efficient? (1)

prograde (1425683) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344568)

The article fails to quote an efficiency rating...are smaller heat engines more efficient than macro-scale ones?

Re:How Efficient? (1)

Amouth (879122) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344906)

doubtful - in the macro world - the larger the engine the more efficient it is ..

Re:How Efficient? (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38345294)

It's hidden at the end of the article:

"Although our machine does not provide any useful work as yet..."

Efficiency = Power Out / Heat In = 0/Heat In = 0%

The Planiverse (2)

jomama717 (779243) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344572)

This reminds me of the story The Planiverse [wikipedia.org] by A. K. Dewdney (yes, I am aware he is now an outspoken 9/11 "truther", and no, I don't agree with him.) The story is quite good, it explores a lot of practical implications of living in a 2D universe (zipper organs, 2D war, common courtesy when walking over someone) including a 2D steam (or maybe internal combustion?) engine.

Re:The Planiverse (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38345186)

Being a 9/11 "truther" is not something to discredit somebody. It is not crazy to question a corrupt government's official account (which itself is a conspiracy theory.) Unlike JFK, this one has a huge social pressure to thoughtlessly accept the official story so it takes a lot of courage to challenge it. They have a losing battle in this one, with JFK declassified documents prove there was a government coverup and all the evidence released directly refutes the official story... its just ignorance and time largely against that one.

9/11 even with more evidence; such as computer simulations where they include the building core (left out of the highly covered one) the public will still have an ANGER against those who dare say anything. You are not allowed to question 9/11 ever. Bush is a moron but don't you ever dare imply that Cheney would allow something like that to happen! He only LOOKS like a bond villain! (He even has no heart/pulse; its a turbine.) Cheney had nothing to do with the war crimes and illegal invasion in Panama and there were no mass graves or 4000 killed... and our CIA wasn't running drugs with our asset we made dictator there...

Americans are so ignorant of what their country does, they can't stomach the 100% proven truth let alone consider reasonable questions or over-the-top conspiracy theories. (Unless of course Fox News presents them, then the moon landing is a hoax, and Obama has no birth certificate.) I know people who STILL believe Bush was right about Iraq and it wasn't a hoax!!! (I can't even get them to watch the Panama documentary which is almost exactly like the Iraq war hoax.)

I know a physics prof who doesn't believe the official story and we talked about it the SAME DAY because it didn't go down right-- his focus was the jet fuel and how little was left burning-- you see, he specialized in fluid dynamics -- specifically in burning fuels (not plasma but he did work on containment for a little bit.) He said most the fuel was gone just after impact; a lot of it in the fireball. Plus the buildings fell too quickly to not warrant severe investigation; which was delayed and never really explained away (academically, that is, with the kind of proof that would permanently change our knowledge of the engineering-- now maybe they finally did that, but not for quite a while later because he was looking for it.)

Re:The Planiverse (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38345828)

Being a 9/11 "truther" is not something to discredit somebody.

It certainly is, based on the crackpot stuff self-identified "truthers" come up with.

It is not crazy to question a corrupt government's official account (which itself is a conspiracy theory.)

On the face of it, no. Questioning is good. The bad part is when you 1) claim the official explanations are inadequate, 2) come up with an alternate theory that places blame where you want it to be, and 3) declare that since the official story is questionable, your theory must be correct. That is what "truthers" have done to date. I'm still waiting for them to do any actual investigation.

Re:The Planiverse (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38346522)

Read Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (starring "A Square").

Near perpetual motion discovered! (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38344666)

Intel chips can power themselves!

JJ

And on the most prodigious of days... (0)

eheldreth (751767) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344744)

When the Jeagermonsters have returned to Mechanicsburgh. Boom Boom Ba-Doom Doom Doom!

Not that small (2)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#38344806)

One part of the "engine" is apparently a laser beam. But the laser itself weren't measured in, as it's far bigger than a few micrometers. This kind of engine can't be used in a nanobot or in any practical application if it requires an external laser beam to work.

Re:Not that small (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38345046)

Actually there are two laser beams, one of which is used as the energy source. If your energy source for electrical power generation is something that gets its power from electrical power, then you're doing something wrong.

Re:Not that small (3, Insightful)

Ivan Stepaniuk (1569563) | more than 2 years ago | (#38345140)

One part of the "engine" is apparently a laser beam. But the laser itself weren't measured in, as it's far bigger than a few micrometers. This kind of engine can't be used in a nanobot or in any practical application if it requires an external laser beam to work.

One part of a reciprocating gas "engine" is apparently an oil extraction platform in the middle of the sea. But the platform itself wasn't measured in, as it's far bigger than a few centimeters. This kind of engine can't be used in a car or in any practical application if it requires an external oil platform to work.

Re:Not that small (1)

2gravey (959785) | more than 2 years ago | (#38348500)

Your statement would be correct if the gas engine couldn't work without the offshore oil rig connected to it. As it is, though, your analogy is crap.

Obligatory NHS reference (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38345044)

"The world can be saved by steam!"

MEMS Steam Engines (1)

fishicist (777318) | more than 2 years ago | (#38345190)

This reminds me of a device by Sandia National Labs of a micro-electromechanical steam engine [sandia.gov] . Sandia's device uses resistive heating to vapourise the water and capillary forces retract the piston.
Anyone in-the-know care to comment on the relative merits and the relative scales?

The Little Engine That Could (1)

noldrin (635339) | more than 2 years ago | (#38345210)

Was it built to transport shipments of the world's tiniest violin to people everywhere? I know I can, I know I can, I know I can!

Yes, a new tiny steam engine locomotive... (1)

jkiller (1030766) | more than 2 years ago | (#38345740)

"...and it will carry two hundred passengers from New York's Idyllwild Airport to the Belgian Congo in seventeen minutes!"

good lord, Galileo is spinning. (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38346054)

Way back, Galileo figured out the very important law of scaling. Seems like we need a refresher course. Any heat engine is going to be woefully lousy at a small scale. The displacement goes down as the cube of the linear dimensions, while the friction and heat losses go down as the square. You don't need to get very small before the engine is chugging away and all its energy goes into friction and heat losses.

Not Much of an Engine (2)

vortex2.71 (802986) | more than 2 years ago | (#38346232)

Did anyone actually read this story and notice that this is highly inefficient and not much of an engine. While it fits the definition of an engine thermodynamically, the process that they describe is not particularly useful. This is just an example of scientists doing their research and then noticing that they have met the definition for an engine and then promoting this fact in order to get press and increase their chances of funding down the road.

Re:Not Much of an Engine (1)

blair1q (305137) | more than 2 years ago | (#38346890)

I didn't see it as an engine at all.

It's just a particle being expanded by a laser beam then allowed to contract.

No indication of how it "does work on the optical laser field". Does the beam gain in intensity or frequency as the particle expands?

Flawed Premise (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38347490)

Max Planck [...] says there's nothing, in principle, to prevent the construction of highly efficient, small heat engines.

Except that heat engines aren't particularly efficient perhaps...

efficient / small - pick any one (1)

NemoinSpace (1118137) | more than 2 years ago | (#38351308)

there's nothing, in principle, to prevent the construction of highly efficient, small heat engines.

Except, maybe the Carnot cycle? In steam engines, small and efficient aren't used in the same sentence.
I notice they didn't include the laser apparatus in the size of their "microscopic engine" meh

hmm (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38354590)

When you follow the links to the source of the story it reads "Here we demonstrate the experimental realization of a microscopic heat engine" ... Quite a far cry from actually building one.

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