Highly precise atomic clocks could soon get even better. Here's how (2024)

Highly precise atomic clocks could soon get even better. Here's how (1)

The use of a special type of atom could make even the most advanced atomic clocks more precise, scientists believe.

If confirmed, this breakthrough that could lead to more accurate GPS systems and better atomic clocks for use in space travel — it could even lead to devices that can detect earthquakes and volcanic eruptions with a higher level of accuracy. And fascinatingly, one of the researchers behind the development has a familiar name, based on a fitting family legacy rooted in the cutting edge of atomic science: Eliot Bohr. He's Neils Bohr's great-grandson.

Related: Atomic clocks on Earth could reveal secrets about dark matter across the universe

Of all the units humanity uses for measurement, the most precisely defined is the second, a fundamental unit of time. Crucial to this and all types of time measurements throughout history are different kinds of oscillations. Just as grandfather clocks use oscillations of a pendulum to measure time, atomic clocks define a second as 9,192,631,770 microwave oscillations of a cesium atom as it absorbs microwave radiation of a specific frequency.

Many modern atomic clocks use oscillations of strontium atoms rather than cesium to measure time; the most precise of these is accurate to within 1/15,000,000,000 of a second. This means that, even if it had been running since the dawn of time around 13.8 billion years ago, the clock still wouldn't have lost or gained a full second. Yet, for the majority of atomic clocks, which are used to keep Universal Coordinated Time (UTC) from positions around the globe and make sure our cell phones, computers and GPS tech is synchronized, there is still some room for improvement.

That's because the laser used to read the oscillations of atoms in atomic clocks heats up those atoms while doing so, causing them to escape the system. This can create some discrepancy, albeit incredibly slight. Still, researchers from the Niels Bohr Institute thinks they have found a way to eliminate the laser altogether, thus avoiding atomic heating and potential degradation of precision. It is an institute named for Eliot Bohr's great-grandfather, and one Bohr himself is affiliated with.

"We found that it is possible to read out the collective state of an atomic ensemble, as is required in atomic clocks and sensors, at an enhanced rate and with minimal heating using superradiance," lead researcher Eliot Bohr, who was a Ph.D. fellow at the institute, told Space.com. "There is a threshold for superradiance to occur for our chosen experimental geometry, and we can leverage this threshold in a clock sequence."

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Atomic clocks could be cooler

In current atomic clocks, 300 million or so hot strontium atoms are spat into a magneto-optical trap located within a vacuum chamber. This trap is a ball of atoms cooled to temperatures near absolute zero, the theoretical temperature at which all atomic movement would cease. Because of these temperatures, the introduced atoms lie almost still. This makes it possible for two mirrors with light between them to register their oscillations.

"In traditional atomic clocks, the detection heats up the atoms, requiring atoms to be freshly loaded," Bohr said. "This loading takes a while and causes downtime in the atomicclock cycle, limiting precision."

The team's sort of "paused" atoms that have been cooled so immensely, however, can be reused. This means they wouldn't need to be replaced as often, therefore leading to more precise atomic clocks.

Bohr explained that superradiant atoms are atoms that exist in a collective quantum state and are excited by the addition of energy in the form of photons, or particles of light. When the atoms release the photon-induced energy, or "decay," they all emit light in the same direction and at an enhanced rate.

"One cannot fundamentally distinguish which atom emitted which photon.They emitted them together, collectively," he added. "This enhanced emission rate allows for photons to be emitted much quicker from the type of atomic transitions that areused in atomic clocks."

This powerful light signal can be used to read out the atomic state of the collective strontium atoms, which means a laser isn't actually needed in the first place. And, again, because this process happens without the superradiant atoms being heated more than a very minimal amount, they won't need to be replaced.

Not only would doing away with the laser make more precise atomic clocks, but it could result in devices that are simpler and more portable.

"State-of-the-art atomic clocks are now so precise they are sensitive to gravity," Bohr said. "There are proposals that if we have atomic clocks that are portable and precise enough, we can place them strategically and better predict earthquakes and volcano eruptions by measuring certain variations in gravity."

Revolutionary atomic science is the family trade

Coming from a line of scientists who have been influential in our understanding of the subatomic world, Bohr may well have this sort of research in his blood. Most famous in this lineage is his great-grandfather, Niels Bohr, one of the fathers of quantum physics and a scientist who made a huge contribution to the understanding of the atomic structure, without which research like this couldn't happen.

Highly precise atomic clocks could soon get even better. Here's how (2)

In 1913, Niels Bohr, along with Ernest Rutherford, presented a model of the atom, suggesting it to be a dense nucleus surrounded by orbiting electrons. Though this "Bohr model" of the atom is now considered relatively simplistic compared to the detailed diagrams we have now, 111 years after its inception, it is still used to introduce students to the concept of the atom in classrooms across the globe.

Eliot Bohr's family's connection to the atomic structure goes deeper than this, too.

His grandfather is Aage Niels Bohr, who in 1975 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics along with Ben Roy Mottelson and James Rainwater for their discovery of the connection between collective motion and particle motion in atomic nuclei. This led to the development of an improved theory of the structure of the atomic nucleus.

"Both my great-grandfather and my grandfather inspired me greatly," Bohr said. "They both worked on theoretical work, understanding the atom and nucleus.My great-grandfather's theory that atoms can absorb a photon of a particular wavelength and go to an excited state, or emit a photon and decay to a lower state, is precisely what we do in our lab each and every day using lasers."

Highly precise atomic clocks could soon get even better. Here's how (3)

Bohr added that it is the open-mindedness demonstrated by his great-grandfather and colleagues that he finds particularly inspiring.

"The concepts are completely non-intuitive, but through rigorous data and debates, they accepted these new 'quantum' rules," Bohr said. "We now accept them and use them in many of our modern-day technologies.I hope to contribute to developing the next quantum technologies which will benefit society."

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As for his superradient atomic clock research, Bohr said there are lots of possibilities for future advancements. The group he was part of in Copenhagen is now continuing to understand variousproperties of superradiant light to see how it can be harnessed for other situations.

Meanwhile, Bohr has started a postdoctoral researchposition at JILA, a joint institute between the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado, Boulder. This is a lab that also studies superradiance and other collective atomic effects for next-generationquantum sensors.

"I plan to continue researchingcollective quantum effects which can be used in clocks and sensors," he concluded. "We have some ideas for further refining the method, such as finding the optimal parameters and understanding and reducing the noise level in the superradiant signal.

"There are a lot of possibilities to use superradiance to advance clocks and sensor technology."

The team's research was published in February in the journal Nature Communications.

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Highly precise atomic clocks could soon get even better. Here's how (4)

Robert Lea

Senior Writer

RobertLeais a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.

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3 CommentsComment from the forums

  • Katakouzenos_1

    Admin said:

    Superradiant atoms could help us measure time more precisely than ever before, a theory developed with the aid of the great-grandson of the "father of the atom," Niels Bohr.

    Highly precise atomic clocks could soon get even better. Here's how : Read more

    I'm very very happy to hear that. Because they're using atomic energy for Destruction instead of Science and production. Who knows we could actually develop something like we see in science fiction. The mind is a miracle and a very organic computer if we put it to the right task. I really like this.


  • Unclear Engineer

    It would be interesting to watch the evolution of the synchronous release of the photons from what I think they are describing as a Bose-Einstein condensate of atoms.

    MIT has now developed a camera system that can see a group of photons travel through matter, at a trillion frames per second. (See https://www.upworthy.com/mit-camera-speed-of-light-rp2 )

    And there is also this: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/see-the-highest-resolution-atomic-image-ever-captured/ .

    So, maybe soon we will actually be able to "see" some of the things that quantum theory describes, and figure out how it really behaves.


  • perilun

    We submitted a proposal for Blue Origin's Reef Starter Innovation Challenge (2022)

    Finalist: Enhanced Vibration Isolation - Endohedral Fullerenes Factory

    Endohedral Fullerenes (specialized Buckyballs worth $100M/gram) may also be used in these in tiny atomic clocks (possibly in smart phones) and can be 10x as efficient to make in space.


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Highly precise atomic clocks could soon get even better. Here's how (2024)


What is the most precise atomic clock? ›

The optical atomic clock, the most accurate type of atomic clock, is so accurate that it wouldn't have lost a second over the universe's entire existence of more than 13 billion years. Optical atomic clocks keep time by using a laser that is tuned to precisely match this frequency.

What is needed to make atomic clocks more accurate? ›

Crucial to the accuracy of an atomic clock is the width of the resonance used. Current cesium atomic clocks already use a very narrow resonance, and even more accurate results are being obtained using lattices of strontium.

Why are atomic clocks better? ›

Atomic resonance has a much higher Q than mechanical devices. Atomic clocks can also be isolated from environmental effects to a much higher degree. Atomic clocks have the benefit that atoms are universal, which means that the oscillation frequency is also universal.

How do we know atomic clocks are accurate? ›

Insane precision

Every atom naturally oscillates at very high frequencies billions or trillions of times per second. Counting these regular beats provides a highly precise measure of time. Currently, a cesium clock at NIST defines the second, where 1 second is 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the cesium atom.

What is the doomsday clock in 2024? ›

Doomsday Clock remains at a minute and a half to midnight in 2024—closest ever to apocalypse. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced on Jan. 23 that the hands of the Doomsday Clock would remain at 90 seconds to midnight.

Which country has the most accurate atomic clock? ›

Research teams from Japan, the US, and Germany have been working on developing atomic clocks. However, the most precise atomic clock is hosted at the University of Colorado in Boulder and is also stable in its operation.

How much does an atomic clock cost? ›

Conventional vapor cell atomic clocks are about the size of a deck of cards, consume about 10 W of electrical power and cost about $3,000.

Are atomic clocks safe? ›

Without atomic clocks, GPS navigation would be impossible, the Internet would not synchronize, and the position of the planets would not be known with enough accuracy for space probes and landers to be launched and monitored. Atomic clocks are not radioactive. They do not rely on atomic decay.

What is the nuclear doomsday clock? ›

Doomsday Clock, symbolic clock adopted by atomic scientists to show how close human beings are considered to be to a global catastrophe, with midnight standing for annihilation, or “doomsday.” Metaphorically, the clock's minute hand moves closer to or farther from midnight, depending on the level of threat thought to ...

Do atomic clocks lose time? ›

While the atomic clock created at University of Wisconsin-Madison is precise to the point of "losing just one second every 300 billion years," the physicists say it isn't as precise as the model developed by the JILA team.

What is the disadvantage of atomic clock? ›

Distance and Accuracy

The method by which atomic clocks work has an inherent limitation – the time it takes for the radio signal to reach the clock. The signal gives the time at the point the signal left the station, but the actual time at which it reaches your clock will be slightly later.

Do atomic clocks drift? ›

The precision of these oscillations allows atomic clocks to drift roughly only one second in a hundred million years; as of 2015, the most accurate atomic clock loses one second every 15 billion years.

What is the most accurate clock in the United States? ›

The world's most precise clock is found in the United States. The clock was built by the National Institute of Standard and Technology together with the University of Colorado, Boulder. The clock is so precise no second is lost over the entire age of the Universe.

Do atomic clocks tick? ›

Time is the most precisely measured physical quantity in the universe. Atomic clocks now routinely tick off nanoseconds (one billionths of a second) by tuning microwave lasers to match one frequency of light emitted by a cesium atom.

Why is my atomic clock always wrong? ›

Test and replace the battery in the clock, if required. Low batteries are often the cause for weak reception. Relocate the clock. It is possible the clock is in an area with a lot of wireless interference.

What kind of clock is the most precise? ›

Atomic clocks are the most precise timepieces ever created. To preserve correct time, the clock employs an electronic transition frequency through an atom's electromagnetic spectrum as a frequency reference. The atomic clock has become so precise that it will not succeed or fail a second in 138 million years .

Which clock offers the most precision? ›

Atomic clocks are so accurate that they will lose one second approximately every 100 million years; for reference, the average quartz clock will lose one second every couple of years. On the other hand, Ye's optical lattice clock will lose one second every 15 billion years, making it the world's most accurate clock.

Which is the most precise atomic model? ›

Quantum mechanical model is more correct and accurate than any other model.

What is the most accurate unit of time? ›

Cesium atoms absorb microwaves with a frequency of 9,192,631,770 cycles per second, which then defines the international scientific unit for time, the second. The answer to how we measure time may seem obvious.

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