Random fluctuations affect the operation of microscopic machines. In the future, such devices could be incorporated into other technologies in order to recycle waste heat and thus improve energy efficiency.

An engine that is a single calcium ion was created that is electrically charged, making it easy to trap using electric fields. The working substance of the engine is the ion’s intrinsic spin (its angular momentum), which is used to convert heat absorbed from laser beams into oscillations, or vibrations, of the trapped ion.

These vibrations act like a flywheel to capture the useful energy generated by the engine. This energy is stored in discrete units called “quanta,” as predicted by quantum mechanics. Starting the flywheel from rest — or from its ground state (the lowest energy in quantum physics) — the engine forced the flywheel to run faster.

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