Engineers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), Germany, have constructed a new heat engine that can operate with just one single atom.
Since the days of Industrial Revolution heat engines have played a significant role in shaping automobile technology. Various experiments were conducted by QUANTUM work group at the Institute of Physics at JGU in collaboration with physicists from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) before creating the new engine.
The researchers, led by Professor Kilian Singer from Mainz University, used a Paul trap to capture a single electrically charged calcium atom. Paul trap is a quadrupole ion trap which uses dynamic electric fields to trap charged particles.
The calcium atom can be heated with electrically-generated noise and cooled with a laser beam. The atom is then subjected to a thermodynamic cycle. In a Paul trap, the particles move back and forth in the trap, thereby replicating the stroke of a typical engine. This way the atom is also able to store energy in addition to behaving like an engine.
Extensive tests were performed to determine the thermodynamic behavior of the engine. The researchers state that the single particle engine can generate a power of 10-22 watts and operate at a 0.3% efficiency. The team contends that scaling up the from the tiny mass of an atom could improve the engine’s ability to provide an output equivalent to a car engine.
“By reversing the cycle, we could even use the device as a single atom refrigerator and employ it to cool nano systems coupled to it,” explained Johannes Roßnagel, first author of the study.
The main objective of the research was to create a nano-engine which can provide new insights into thermodynamics at single-particle level. Many researchers are trying to lower the operational temperature of the engine to investigate the quantum effects of thermodynamics.
Theoretically the power of a heat engine can be enhanced if linked with a quantum heat bath, which essentially provides various opportunities to push the conventionally accepted boundaries of classical thermodynamics.
Progress in miniaturization techniques is resulting in the creation of increasingly smaller devices. This research will eventually result in the creation of highly efficient engines.
Image courtesy of AG QUANTUM/JGU