Next-Generation Atomic Clocks One Step Closer to Real-World Applications

Quantum clocks are shrinking thanks to new technologies developed by Sensors and Timing at the Center for Quantum Technology at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

Working in collaboration with and partially funded by the UK’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), a team of quantum physicists has devised new approaches that not only reduce the size of their clock, but also make it small enough robust enough to be transported out of the lab and used in the “real world”.

Quantum, or atomic, clocks are seen as essential to increasingly precise approaches in areas such as worldwide online communications, navigation systems, or global stock trading, where fractions of a second could make a big economic difference. . Atomic clocks with optical clock frequencies can be 10,000 times more precise than their microwave equivalents, opening up the possibility of redefining the standard (SI) unit of measurement.

Even the most advanced optical clocks could one day make a significant difference both in everyday life and in basic science. By allowing longer periods between resynchronization needs than other types of clocks, they provide greater resilience for the national timekeeping infrastructure and unlock future positioning and navigation applications for autonomous vehicles. The unparalleled precision of these clocks can also help us see beyond standard physical models and understand some of the most mysterious aspects of the universe, including dark matter and dark energy. Such clocks will also help answer fundamental physics questions, such as whether the fundamental constants are really “constant” or whether they vary with time.

Lead researcher Dr Yogeshwar Kale said: “The stability and accuracy of optical clocks make them crucial for many future information and communications networks. Once we have a ready-to-use system outside the lab, we can use, for example, land navigation networks where all these clocks are connected via fiber optics and start talking to each other. Such networks will reduce our dependence on GPS systems, which can sometimes fail.

“These transportable optical clocks will not only help improve geodetic measurements, fundamental properties of the Earth’s shape and variations in gravity, but will also serve as a precursor to monitoring and identifying geodynamic signals such as early-stage earthquakes and volcanoes. »

Although these quantum clocks are advancing rapidly, the main obstacles to their deployment are their size – current models come in vans or car trailers and weigh around 1,500 liters – and their sensitivity to environmental conditions that limit their transport between different locations.

The Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing team based in Birmingham, UK, have developed a solution that addresses both challenges in a package that is an approximately 120 liter ‘box’ weighing less than 75kg. The book is published in Quantum science and technology.

A Dstl spokesperson added: “Dstl sees optical clock technology as a key enabler of future Department of Defense capabilities. These types of clocks have the potential to shape the future by giving national infrastructures greater resilience and changing the way communication and sensor networks are designed. With the support of Dstl, the University of Birmingham has made significant progress in miniaturizing many subsystems of an optical lattice clock and in doing so has overcome many significant technical challenges. We look forward to seeing what further progress they can make in this area. exciting and rapidly evolving field. »

Clocks work by using lasers to produce and then measure quantum oscillations in atoms. These oscillations can be measured with great precision and from the frequency the time can also be measured. One challenge is minimizing external influences on measurements, such as mechanical vibrations and electromagnetic interference. For this, the measurements must be carried out in a vacuum and with a minimum of external interference.

At the heart of the new design is an ultra-high vacuum chamber, smaller than anything still in use in the field of quantum time measurement. This chamber can be used to trap atoms and then cool them very close to “absolute zero” so that they reach a state where they can be used for precision quantum sensors.

The team showed that they could capture nearly 160,000 ultracold atoms on camera in less than a second. Furthermore, they demonstrated that they could transport the system for 200 km, before configuring it to be ready to take measurements in less than 90 minutes. The system was able to survive a temperature rise of 8 degrees above ambient temperature during the voyage.

Dr. Kale added: “We were able to show a robust and robust system, which can be quickly transported and installed by a single qualified technician. This brings us closer to using these high-precision quantum instruments in harsh environments. setup outside of a lab environment.

Dennis Alvarado

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