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A Stirling engine in the microworld: In a normal-sized engine, a gas expands and contracts at different temperature and thus moves a piston in a cylinder. Physicists in Stuttgart have created this work cycle with a tiny plastic bead that they trapped in the focus of a laser field. © Fritz Höffeler / Art For Science

The world’s smallest steam engine

A heat engine measuring only a few micrometres works as well as its larger counterpart, although it splutters

  • 11 December 2011

What would be a case for the repair shop for a car engine is completely normal for a micro engine. If it sputters, this is caused by the thermal motions of the smallest particles, which interfere with its running. Researchers at the University of Stuttgart and the Stuttgart-based Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems have now observed this with a heat engine on the micrometre scale. They have also determined that the machine does actually perform work, all things considered. Although this cannot be used as yet, the experiment carried out by the researchers in Stuttgart shows that an engine does basically work, even if it is on the microscale. This means that there is nothing, in principle, to prevent the construction of highly efficient, small heat engines.