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20 Things You Didn't Know About … Engines

1. Everybody’s doing the locomotion . . . really. We are all engines, which
by their most basic definition are machines that convert energy into

2. And while you could think of animals as being engines, plants
have them: Photosynthesis pathways are often described as plant engines,
and biologists are particularly interested in the C4 plant engine, which
was discovered in the 1960s.

3. Plants powered by C4 engines, including
maize and sugar cane, typically convert atmospheric carbon dioxide more
readily, thanks to novel leaf and cell structures. They also tend to
produce higher yields than C3 species, which outnumber C4 species by about
30 to 1.

4. The C4 pathway evolved multiple times in different lineages,
often during periods of low carbon dioxide or in semiarid environments. The
adaptation allows the plant to use scant resources, such as water and
nitrogen, more efficiently.

5. And that’s why scientists are using genetic
modification to try to turn C3 plants into C4 powerhouses, which may prove
more resilient in a drier, resource-depleted world.

6. If thinking of plants
as having engines is a little out there for you, how about a really far-out
fact: Black holes are the universe’s most powerful engines.

The workings
of a black hole are similar to an internal combustion engine. It consumes
fuel and produces energy while remaining intact, unlike, say, an explosion.

8. How can a black hole produce energy when nothing escapes it? Well, once
material falls in, there’s no going back, but the black hole’s extreme
gravity creates the perfect environment for generating energy just outside
its boundary, or horizon.

9. In 2009, two researchers proposed a highly
theoretical spacecraft powered by multiple mini-black holes — the smaller a
black hole is, the more energy it produces.

10. While the idea caused a buzz
initially, the concept remains theoretical. Quite frankly, we’re more
likely to have engines that run on panda poop.

11. No, seriously. In a 2016
study, researchers described how the excrement of giant pandas was “ideal”
for biofuel production.

12. The bears digest bamboo, thanks to unique gut
microbes that break down the tough plant material. Once excreted and
cultured by researchers, those same bugs go to town on other plant scraps
and produce a hydrogen-based biofuel.

13. That’s a pretty ingenious way to
fuel an engine. Both words, by the way, derive from ingenium, Latin for
“talent,” an abstract concept. Over time, the word engine also took on the
more concrete meaning of a device.

14. A device you don’t see much these
days is the siege engine. For millennia, these massive military weapons,
such as catapults and battering rams, were a popular way to breach

One engine that has catapulted to fame in the last couple of
decades isn’t an engine at all. Search engines, programs that provide you
with lists of websites based on the terms you tell it to find, aren’t
converting energy so much as directing curiosity.

16. In 1989, McGill
University graduate student and systems administrator Alan Emtage needed an
efficient way to find files spread across multiple servers. He created a
program to hunt through the servers for specific content he requested.

Emtage’s personal timesaver got a big promotion when his boss recognized
its potential. The McGill team expanded the program — known as Archie, a
shortened form of “archive” — into the world’s first search engine.

Technology gave us another engine that’s not really an engine. Developers
use software packages called game engines as the template for the world in
which a video game is set.

19. These complex programs automatically regulate
the basics of a game, from managing memory needs efficiently for smoother
play to changing the lighting as a character moves through a landscape.

Scientists are increasingly turning to game engines in their research
because the programs are, by nature, fast and efficient at tasks such as
visualization. In 2017, for example, researchers designed a game
engine-based system to identify optimal wind turbine positioning. There it
is: more human ingenuity.

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