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Scientists recently unveiled the tiniest electric motor ever built. You could stuff hundreds of them into the period at the end of this sentence.
One day a similar engine might power a tiny mechanical doctor that would travel through your body in the ultimate house call.
The motor works by shuffling atoms between two molten metal droplets in a carbon nanotube.
One droplet is even smaller than the other. When a small electric current is applied to the droplets, atoms slowly eek off the larger droplet and join the smaller one. The small droplet grows – but never gets as big as the other droplet – and eventually bumps into the large droplet. As they touch, the large droplet rapidly sops up the atoms it had previously sloughed off. This quick shift in energy produces a power stroke.
The technique exploits the fact that surface tension -- the tendency of atoms or molecules to resist separating -- becomes more important at small scales. Surface tension is the same thing that allows some insects to walk on water.