A new spin on motors

Motors are everywhere. Not just in the car, in the home and in the office, but in the human body too!

In my younger and more vulnerable years, I went to a press conference given by a large UK motor distributor. I had hoped to learn something about new motor technology.

Unfortunately, the UK marketing chap was bereft of any new technological developments to reveal to the press. And, faced with the unimpressive fact that his ‘new’ product was actually just a cheap DC motor imported from China, he decided to focus the attention of the press onto the ubiquitous nature of the motor itself.

‘They can be found everywhere,’ he disclosed to our amazement.

‘In today’s car, for example, they are in your doors, in your seats, under your bonnet. In the office, they can be found in your fans, in your Xerox machines and in your printers. In your house, they are in your refrigerator, in your record player – and even in your Leslie Rotating Speaker Cabinet.’ (Nervous laughs from older journo/muso combos).

You get the picture. Not interesting at all.

Enter stage right Professor Dr. John Walker, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, and Director of the Dunn Human Nutrition Unit in Cambridge.

At a far more interesting lecture delivered by the aforementioned Professor Walker a couple of weeks ago, I discovered that nature appears to have beaten Faraday to the motor punch. And that the ubiquitous motor is far more so than we might have originally thought.

In his lecture, Professor Walker presented some examples of rotary mechanisms that can be found in biology. These biomotors were ‘invented’, I should imagine, at least a couple of years before Faraday was born.

One such biological motor was to be found in the Escherichia (E. coli.) bacterium, the head of the notorious Enterobacteriaceae family that colonise the human bowel within 40 hours of birth.

Rotating flagella on the outside of our e.coli are powered by biomotors that propel the bacterium towards food. And at what a rate! The flagella push the bacterium at a speed that if magnified to human dimensions would correspond to 30 miles per hour!

Amazing, but of little practical use?

Maybe not. Some folks at the University of Arkansas in the US are aiming to harness the biological motor for some practical use. There, Steve Tung is incorporating living bacteria into microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) to form living motors for pumps and valves to improve the performance of biochemical analysis.

So, despite the fact that mechanical motors and biological motors now surround us, the end of the motor revolution is still not in sight. The BioMEMs motor could herald a new revolution in motor use.

And what next? Perhaps, eventually, someone will make a Biomotor big enough for the marketing chaps to get their teeth into. Hopefully, even if they are the dullest of marketing chaps, the motor won’t, however, be based on our old friend e.coli. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone!