Researchers have made the world’s tiniest engine– just a couple of billionths of a metre in size, which utilizes light to power itself. The nanoscale engine, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, could form the basis of future nano-machines that can navigate in water, pick up the environment around them, and even go into living cells to eliminate diseases.
The prototype device is made of small charged particles of gold, bound together with temperature-responsive polymers in the form of a gel. Whenever the ‘nano-engine’ is heated up to a particular temperature with a laser, it stores huge quantities of elastic energy in a split second, as the polymer finishes expel all the water from the gel and collapse. This has the impact of forcing the gold nanoparticles to bind together into tight clusters. However when the gadget is cooled, the polymers handle water and expand, and the gold nanoparticles are highly and quickly pushed apart. The results are noted in the journal PNAS.
The research study recommends how to turn Van de Waals energy– the attraction between atoms and particles– into elastic energy of polymers and release it extremely quickly.
The team is currently working with Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm, and several other firms with the goal of commercialising this innovation for microfluidics bio-applications.
The research study has been funded as part of a UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) financial investment in the Cambridge NanoPhotonics Centre, along with the European Research Council (ERC).