Researchers create a machine that’s the size of an atom

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In a research paper published last week in the peer-reviewed journal, npj Quantum Information on Nature.com, a team of researchers reported on a machine the size of an atom, which they describe to be “a single-atom energy-conversion quantum device.”   

The study is a joint effort between researchers at Singapore University of Technology and Design, the Centre for Quantum Technologies and Department of Physics at the National University of Singapore, and the University of Augsburg in Germany. 

Quantum Mechanics is typically viewed as a complex science, which borders the line between science facts, and science fiction, given the nature of the studies within the field.     

This branch of science deals with the behaviour of matter and energy on atomic and subatomic scales. It attempts to describe and account for the properties of molecules and atoms and their constituents—electrons, protons, neutrons, and particles that are more minuscule than neutrons and protons, such as quarks and gluons.   

The team of researchers created the atom-sized machine which exhibited the properties of an engine or a cooling device such as a refrigerator. Known as a Nano-machine, these atoms have the potential to be integrated into computers and fuel cells as a means of energy regulation in the future.   

“Think about how your computer or laptop has a lot of things inside it that heat up. Today you cool that with a fan that blows air. In nanomachines or quantum computers, small devices that do cooling could be something useful,” says Dr. Dario Poletti, a researcher at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, who was quoted on Phys.org.

Dr. Dario Poletti and his team chose to look at thermodynamics, which is the branch of physics that deals with the relationships between heat and other forms of energy.   

Engines and fridges are machines according to thermodynamics. On the one hand, we understand that heat engines convert heat into useful energy. Fridges, on the other hand, work by transferring heat to keep temperatures reduced.   

Although these machines are, in a sense, considered opposites, they both involve energy conversion, and it’s this behavior that Dr. Dario Poletti and his team demonstrated at a miniature level.    

Manas Mukherjee, a Principal Investigator at the Center for Quantum Technologies who led the experiment, was also quoted by Phys.org, saying, “we want to understand how we can build thermodynamic devices with just a few atoms. The physics is not well understood so our work is important to know what is possible.”   

The study involved the use of lasers on a single atom, acting as fuel, which causes one of the atom’s electrons to move between two energy levels resulting in vibrations. The atom then either acts like a battery, which stores the energy from its vibrations that could be used, or it removes energy, creating a cooling effect similar to the process in fridges.   

Green energy has been a focal point over the years as a replacement for natural gases, oil, and coal. Renewable energy sources and production methods, such as solar panels, wind farms, hydroelectric dams, and geothermal energy, are current green options. The researchers of this study believe energy conversion devices on a quantum level could also be green energy solutions in the future.  

A more in-depth explanation of the study can be found in the original research paper that was published on Nature.com. 


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