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China’s newest atomic clock will run error free for 7.2 Billion years


Most of our world is controlled by atomic clocks and timing, and this development puts China in the lead in yet another crucial technology.


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Researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China have allegedly built an optical clock with stability and uncertainty of under five quintillionths of a second meaning that it will lose or gain just one second in the next seven billion years. It is, therefore, likely to depict accurate time throughout our lifetimes …


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Optical clocks have a critical role in the future that is shaping up today. Scientists are confident they can develop more accurate Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) systems – the latter of which are vital when it comes to developing powerful, allegedly unhackable, quantum networks, using optical clocks.

Research teams from Japan, the US, and Germany have also 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. With their recent achievement, China has become the second nation in the world to have demonstrated precise timekeeping. However, the clock needs to be more accurate than its US counterpart.

A second, which might seem like a little tick on a clock, is defined by science based on an atomic clock, known as a microwave fountain clock. The clock releases cesium atoms upwards, which fall back toward the Earth due to gravity, much like water flows in a fountain. The atoms are then excited with microwave pulses, which causes electrons to absorb and emit light particles and jump to different energy levels.


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Each such cycle is a small tick that makes up fractions of a second, allowing scientists to maintain precise timekeeping down to several quadrillionths of a second. However, the precision of such a clock depends on the microwave frequency. Therefore, researchers have been developing an optical clock that replaces the microwave with laser light. This is estimated to improve the clock’s performance by two orders of magnitude.

We require at least three laboratories to achieve stability below five quintillionths and uncertainty below two quintillionths to adopt optical digital clocks. Under the guidance of Pan Jianwei, the Chinese research team used strontium to make their optical clock.

The researchers cooled down strontium atoms to temperatures of a few micro-Kelvin. Then, they trapped them in a one-dimensional lattice created with the help of intersecting laser beams. They then used an ultra-stable laser to trigger the atoms and bring about a clock transition that was stable and precise.


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Comparisons with other independent clocks confirmed that the optical clock was stable to 2.2 quintillionths while its uncertainty was 4.4 quintillionths. In Metrologia’s research journal, the researchers said their optical clock would lose or gain one second in 7.2 billion years.

This puts the team’s effort in the minimum criteria required toward building a future that uses optical clocks for precise timekeeping. The researchers also plan to use other atoms, such as ytterbium, to make the clock and compare differences in the timekeeping.

The researchers also said that their work has opened up new ways to test fundamental theories in physics and search for gravitational waves and dark matter, the South China Morning Post reported.

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