What is the smallest engine in the world ?

The smallest engine in the world is a calcium ion and is approximately 10,000 million times smaller than a car engine.

When we talk about engines, we inevitably think of a complex mechanical system. A network of parts connected to each other, which allow the entry of a fuel to produce energy, which ultimately results in movement.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the engine has been a basic instrument for the modernization of societies. Among all those invented, the combustion engine has taken top positions in popularity. Millions of cars have been propelled with this type of system throughout the 20th century, as well as other means of transport.

It is true that combustion is in full swing towards a more sustainable alternative, such as the electric motor. This has evolved from small electronic devices to cars and, now, it is even present in heavy vehicles or boats.

None of these types of engines are related to the system created at Trinity College, Dublin. In this case the object is on a microscopic scale, even more, atomic. The motor in question is a single calcium ion, electrically charged. Its movement is its intrinsic spin, which is used to convert heat – absorbed from laser beams – into oscillations or vibrations of the ion.


The vibrations allow to capture the useful energy generated by the engine. This is stored in units called ‘quanta’. We enter here in the field of quantum mechanics. The team of researchers has observed that its system, which would be the smallest engine in the world, works faster or slower, depending on the energy input.

Invisible engines

It is not the first tiny-sized engine discovered. Because at this level – atomic or molecular scale, at most – one cannot speak of building but rather of experimenting and discovering.

At the University of Cambridge, they embedded gold particles in a polymer gel. To the result was applied an energy contribution based on laser. The effect that the beam had on the whole was to expel water from the polymer and bring the gold particles, which in turn attract each other. The researchers achieved a constant expansion-contraction movement. He had managed to create a system that produced movement with a size one million times smaller than an ant.

The scientists at Trinity College in Dublin went further. The size of your calcium ion is significantly smaller. His achievement concerns the search for more efficient computing. Nanoscale heat management is one of the bottlenecks to create more powerful computer systems.

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