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Scientists Create World's Smallest Steam Engine 84

Posted by samzenpus
from the I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can dept.
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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Scientists Create World's Smallest Steam Engine

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  • by Tekfactory (937086) on Monday December 12, 2011 @01:05PM (#38344324) Homepage

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

    • by ackthpt (218170)

      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 (Score:5, Funny)

    by PopeAlien (164869) on Monday December 12, 2011 @01:06PM (#38344338) Homepage Journal

    "although it sputters, they admit."

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

    • by ackthpt (218170)

      "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.

      • by h5inz (1284916)
        So, anyone getting far enough with reading the article to reach the "..or to be more precise the smallest Stirling engine" part?
    • by cizoozic (1196001)
      I'm guessing that hooking it up to a big flywheel diminishes some of the miniaturization novelty
  • Next up (Score:5, Funny)

    by ExploHD (888637) on Monday December 12, 2011 @01:08PM (#38344372)
    They'll be building a minature train that will span an entire millimeter and haul milligrams of freight
    • Re:Next up (Score:5, Funny)

      by joocemann (1273720) on Monday December 12, 2011 @01:17PM (#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.

      • by Anonymous Coward

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

        • by cizoozic (1196001)

          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.

        • by kmoser (1469707)
          Electronic components are more conducive to LCD smuggling.
        • by mcgrew (92797) *

          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).

      • by atisss (1661313)

        While employing hundreds of tiny mexicans

      • 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.

        • by Dr. Spork (142693)
          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.
          • 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.
      • by durrr (1316311)
        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.
    • 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 !
    • You've reminded me of this sketch: Big Train sketch [youtube.com]
  • ...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.
    • I've got SteamPunk running through my veins ... no seriously ... inside me. No, that's not a metaphor anymore.

      (*twirls handlebar moustache *)
    • by GungaDan (195739)

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

      • by Surt (22457)

        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.

  • by vlm (69642) on Monday December 12, 2011 @01:11PM (#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: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ByOhTek (1181381)

      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].

      • by vlm (69642) on Monday December 12, 2011 @02:16PM (#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.

        • 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

        • 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.
          • by vlm (69642)

            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).

        • Never seen a more accurate explanation.

          Thank you!

  • Another write up (Score:5, Informative)

    by PerlJedi (2406408) Works for Slashdot on Monday December 12, 2011 @01:13PM (#38344442) Homepage Journal
    I also found this story here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111211134002.htm [sciencedaily.com]
  • by Jason Levine (196982) on Monday December 12, 2011 @01:15PM (#38344464)

    Nano-Steampunk Technology!

    • by ackthpt (218170)

      Nano-Steampunk Technology!

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

    • by Sgs-Cruz (526085)
      Nano-steampunk means gluing non-functional pico-watch parts to it.
    • by treeves (963993)

      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 (Score:4, Informative)

    by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdo ... org minus author> on Monday December 12, 2011 @01:17PM (#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]

  • 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....
  • 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?

  • The article fails to quote an efficiency rating...are smaller heat engines more efficient than macro-scale ones?
  • by jomama717 (779243) <jomama717@gmail.com> on Monday December 12, 2011 @01:24PM (#38344572) Journal
    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.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Intel chips can power themselves!

    JJ

  • by Hentes (2461350) on Monday December 12, 2011 @01:40PM (#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.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      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: (Score:3, Insightful)

      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.

      • by 2gravey (959785)
        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.
  • 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?
  • 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!
  • Just so you know, I call dibs on the term "nano-steampunk".
  • "...and it will carry two hundred passengers from New York's Idyllwild Airport to the Belgian Congo in seventeen minutes!"
  • The engine is little, alright. But is it a little engine that could?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    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.

  • by vortex2.71 (802986) on Monday December 12, 2011 @03:30PM (#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.

    • by blair1q (305137)

      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?

  • So does this mean Half-Life 3 will take a lot less disk space?
  • 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

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