Scientists Build World’s Tiniest Engine, A Million Times Smaller Than An Ant

Posted: May 3 2016, 9:48pm CDT | by , Updated: May 3 2016, 10:09pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News


Scientists Create World’s Tinniest Engine, a Million Times Smaller than an Ant
Artists impression of expanding polymer-coated gold nanoparticles. Credit: Yi Ju/University of Cambridge NanoPhotonics

The tiny engine holds promise for treating diseases in the future. It is small enough to enter living cells.

Researchers from Cambridge University have developed the world’s tiniest engine. The nano-engine is just a few billionths of a meter in size. To put things into perspective, the engine is millions of times smaller than an ant, but is strong enough to carry up to 50 times its own body weight. Scientists have named it ANTs’ or actuating nano-transducers.

The tinniest engine uses light to power itself and will potentially team up with future nanobots to achieve indented targets. The newly developed engine has a wide range of implications. It can navigate in water, sense the environment around and even enter living cells inside a body to fight diseases.

The prototype device is made of tiny clumps of gold which are embedded in a watery polymer gel. When the nano-engine is heated to a certain temperature with laser, it stores all the energy in no time and expels water from the gel like a sponge. This generates a strong enough force that binds gold nanoparticles together in tight cluster. As the engine cools, polymers again soak up the water and pushed nanoparticles apart immediately. 

“It’s like an explosion. We have hundreds of gold balls flying apart in a millionth of a second when water molecules inflate the polymers around them.” Dr Tao Ding, one of the researchers involved in the study said.

Building nano-machines is a longtime dream of scientists which is now getting closer to becoming a reality. Nano-engines have been developed before but they lacked speed, strength and control. The new engine is based on incredibly simple yet extremely fast, cost-effective and energy efficient technique.

“The whole process is like a nano-spring,” said Jeremy Baumberg from the Cavendish Laboratory. “The smart part here is we make use of Van de Waals attraction of heavy metal particles to set the springs (polymers) and water molecules to release them, which is very reversible and reproducible.”

The tiny engine is in prototype stage. It may take a while before we see these engines outside the laboratory and use them on a wide-scale.

The study was published in PNAS.

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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