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Researchers Design Very Fast Engine that Works Using Information

Scientists from Simon Fraser University (SFU) have developed an exceptionally quick engine that taps into a new type of fuel—information.

Image Credit: MicroOne/

The engine has been developed such that it transforms the random jiggling of a microscopic particle into stored energy. The study was published recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and could result in considerable progress in the speed and cost of bio-nanotechnologies and computers.

According to John Bechhoefer, a physics professor at SFU and senior author of the study, scientists’ knowledge of how to quickly and effectively transform data into “work” might inform the design and making of real-world information engines.

We wanted to find out how fast an information engine can go and how much energy it can extract, so we made one.

John Bechhoefer, Study Senior Author and Physics Professor, Simon Fraser University

Bechhoefer’s experimental group collaborated with theorists headed by SFU physics professor David Sivak.

Initially, engines of this kind were put forward more than 150 years ago but making them has become possible only in recent times.

By systematically studying this engine, and choosing the right system characteristics, we have pushed its capabilities over ten times farther than other similar implementations, thus making it the current best-in-class,” stated Sivak.

The information engine that has been developed by scientists of SFU includes a microscopic particle that is immersed in water and connected to a spring which, itself, is attached to a movable stage. The team then noticed the particle bouncing up and down as a result of thermal motion.

When we see an upward bounce, we move the stage up in response. When we see a downward bounce, we wait. This ends up lifting the entire system using only information about the particle’s position.

Tushar Saha, PhD Student and Study Lead Author, Simon Fraser University

By repeating this procedure, they elevate the particle to “a great height, and thus store a significant amount of gravitational energy,” without having to pull on the particle directly.

Additionally, Saha explained that “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.”

According to Joseph Lucero, a Master of Science student, “In our theoretical analysis, we find an interesting trade-off between the particle mass and the average time for the particle to bounce up. While heavier particles can store more gravitational energy, they generally also take longer to move up.”

Guided by this insight, we picked the 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, and speeds comparable to fast-swimming bacteria.

Jannik Ehrich, Postdoctoral Fellow, Simon Fraser University

Journal Reference:

Saha, T. K., et al. (2021) Maximizing power and velocity of an information engine. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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