Researchers Designed a Fast Engine that Taps into a new kind of Fuel Energy

Researchers have created a lightning-fast engine that runs on a new type of fuel: information. The random jiggling of a microscopic particle is converted into stored energy by this engine. It has the potential to significantly improve the speed and cost of computers and bio-nanotechnologies.

Researchers at Simon Fraser University have created a remarkably fast engine that runs on a new type of fuel – information. The development of this engine, which converts the random jiggling of a microscopic particle into stored energy, is described in a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and it could lead to significant improvements in the speed and cost of computers and bio-nanotechnologies.

According to SFU physics professor and senior author John Bechhoefer, researchers’ understanding of how to convert information into “work” quickly and efficiently may inform the design and creation of real-world information engines.

Researchers have designed a remarkably fast engine that taps into a new kind of fuel — information. This engine converts the random jiggling of a microscopic particle into stored energy.

“We wanted to see how fast an information engine could go and how much energy it could extract, so we built one,” says Bechhoefer, whose experimental team worked with theorists led by SFU physics professor David Sivak.

Engines of this type were first proposed over 150 years ago, but they have only recently become a reality. “By systematically studying this engine and selecting the right system characteristics, we were able to push its capabilities over ten times further than other similar implementations, making it the current best-in-class,” Sivak says.

The SFU researchers’ information engine is made up of a microscopic particle immersed in water and attached to a spring, which is attached to a movable stage. The particle then bounces up and down due to thermal motion, as observed by the researchers.

Engine converts random jiggling of microscopic particle into stored energy

“When we see an upward bounce, we raise the stage,” says lead author and Ph.D. student Tushar Saha. “We wait when we see a downward bounce. This results in the entire system being lifted using only information about the particle’s position.”

We are accustomed to thinking of engines as devices that consume fuel and assist us in driving our vehicles, so an information-fueled engine may not ring any bells. This concept is a descendant of a thought experiment conducted 150 years ago by the eminent scientist James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell wondered what would happen if he could see a system so small and precise that he could see its tiny fluctuations as it moved due to the air or water molecules around it.

By repeating this procedure, they are able to raise the particle “to a great height and thus store a significant amount of gravitational energy” without having to directly pull on it. “In the lab, we implement this engine with an instrument known as an optical trap, which uses a laser to create a force on the particle that mimics that of the spring and stage,” Saha continues.

A Master of Science student, Joseph Lucero, adds, “We discover an intriguing trade-off between particle mass and the average time for the particle to bounce up in our theoretical analysis. While heavier particles can hold more gravitational energy, they take longer to move up.”

According to postdoctoral fellow Jannik Ehrich, the researchers were able to get the system to generate enough power that is “comparable to molecular machinery in living cells,” with “speeds comparable to fast-swimming bacteria,” and the extracted power and velocity outperformed previously reported engines by at least an order of magnitude.

“Guided by this insight, we chose particle mass and other engine properties to maximize how fast the engine extracts energy, outperforming previous designs and achieving power comparable to molecular machinery in living cells, as well as speeds comparable to fast-swimming bacteria,” says postdoctoral fellow Jannik Ehrich.