Next-generation atomic clocks: Advancing quantum technology

A research team from Birmingham University, a part of the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing, has developed next-generation atomic clocks.

A research team of quantum physicists have worked in collaboration with and partly funded by the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), to devise novel approaches that not only reduce the size of next-generation atomic clocks, but also make them robust enough to be transported out of the laboratory and employed in the ‘real world.’

Quantum – or atomic – clocks are extensively seen as essential for increasingly precise approaches to areas, such as online communications across the world, navigation systems, or global trading in stocks, where fractions of seconds could make a huge economic difference. Next-generation atomic clocks with optical clock frequencies can be 10,000 times more accurate than their microwave counterparts, opening up the possibility of redefining the standard (SI) unit of measurement.

This work was recently published in Quantum Science and Technology.

Unlocking future positioning and navigation applications

Even more advanced optical clocks could one day make a substantial difference both in everyday life and in fundamental science. By allowing longer periods between requiring to re-synchronise than other clocks, they offer increased resilience for national timing infrastructure and unlock future positioning and navigation applications for autonomous vehicles.

The unparalleled precision of these next-generation atomic clocks can also help us to observe standard models of physics and understand some of the most mysterious aspects of the Universe, including dark matter and dark energy. Such clocks will also help to address fundamental physics questions, such as whether the fundamental constants are really ‘constants’ or they are varying with time.

“The stability and precision of optical clocks make them crucial to many future information networks and communications. Once we have a system that is ready for use outside the laboratory, we can use them, for example, in on-ground navigation networks where all such clocks are connected via optical fibre and started talking with each other,” explained Dr Yogeshwar Kale, lead researcher.

“Such networks will reduce our dependence on GPS systems, which can sometimes fail. These transportable optical clocks not only will help to improve geodetic measurements – the fundamental properties of the Earth’s shape and gravity variations – but will also serve as precursors to monitor and identify geodynamic signals like earthquakes and volcanoes at early stages.”

Key barriers to deploying next-generation atomic clocks

Although such quantum clocks are advancing rapidly, key barriers to deploying them are their size – current models come in a van or in a car trailer and are about 1,500 litres – and their sensitivity to environmental conditions limiting their transport between different places.

The team from Birmingham University, based within the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing, have created a solution that addresses both of these challenges in a package that is a ‘box’ of about 120 litres that weighs less than 75kg.  

“Dstl sees optical clock technology as a key enabler of future capabilities for the Ministry of Defence. These kinds of clocks have the potential to shape the future by giving national infrastructure increased resilience and changing the way communication and sensor networks are designed,” said a spokesperson from Dstl.

“With Dstl’s support, the University of Birmingham has made significant progress in miniaturising many of the subsystems of an optical lattice clock, and in doing so overcame many significant engineering challenges. We look forward to seeing what further progress they can make in this exciting and fast-moving field.”

How do the atomic clocks work?

The next-generation atomic clocks utilise lasers to both produce and then measure quantum oscillations in atoms. These oscillations can be measured with high accuracy, and, from the frequency, it is possible to also measure the time. A challenge is minimising the outside influences on the measurements, such as mechanical vibrations and electromagnetic interference. To do that, the measurements must take place within a vacuum and with minimal external interference. 

At the heart of the new design is an ultra-high vacuum chamber, smaller than any yet utilised in the field of quantum time-keeping. This chamber can be used to trap the atoms and then cool them down very close to the ‘absolute zero’ value so they reach a state where they can be used for precision quantum sensors.

Scientists demonstrated that they could capture nearly 160,000 ultra-cold atoms within the chamber in less than a second. Furthermore, it was revealed that they could transport the system over 200km, before setting it up to be ready to take measurements in less than 90 minutes. The system was able to survive a rise in temperature of eight degrees above room temperature during the journey.

“We have been able to show a robust and resilient system, that can be transported and set up rapidly by a single trained technician. This brings us a step closer to seeing these highly precise quantum instruments being used in challenging settings outside a laboratory environment,” concluded Dr Kale.

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