Scientists working from Stuttgart, Germany have developed a steam engine so incredibly small it must be seen with a microscope. And while it may sound like a typical hobby experiment for a lab to be spending research dollars on, when you think of the incredible amount of work that could be performed by such tiny machines, and begin to apply it to things like nanotechnology, power generation, and power storage, the potential becomes quite a bit more interesting. The Stirling engine, or as it is most commonly known the steam engine, is an old technology but if you ask some, it has never gone out of style.
The microscopic pistons work essentially by reacting to gas as it is heated and turning that into kinetic energy, which then moves the gas over to the cooler part of it and then back again, very similar to a variant on other steam engine concepts. But while the device is incredible if you can find it, it is still in the working stage. Just as the first sterling engines were when they were first constructed, this one will no doubt have its share of problems as well.
But there is also a considerable amount of potential for a tiny steam engine. Because such a small volume of gas is moving, it would require a very small amount of heat to actually power it. Could scientists find a way to turn such a small device into a microscopic power generator? Of course a single device would likely provide only a microscopic amount of power, but if more of them were crafted into a fabric that could then be powered, and the efficiency were increased, could we one day be looking at power generating fabric that needed heat rather than the sun to run?
The German engineers did not make any promises that were overly ambitious, instead erring on the side of caution, suggesting the device at the moment required a very fine laser which ran off of far more energy than the device would have produced – as would be expected. Unfortunately, there are also other factors taken into consideration. At the microscopic scale things are not quite as orderly as they may seem. Rather than simple floating particles gently hovering politely around one another, there are often collisions – effectively happening with the force of a relative car wreck very often, and sometimes with more force than that. The end result is the machine has to contend with other particles colliding into it, which can disrupt the amount of work gained or even stop it altogether.
Mankind’s love of the steam engine has been around for a long time, with the first steam engines being around before the fall of the Roman Empire. But it was only in 1712 when the engine first reached commercial availability over a thousand years later that its true potential was unlocked. Perhaps we will one day find a further potential application with the invention of newer tiny steam engines in the medical field, energy production, and energy storage devices.