New clock using atoms trapped by lasers boosts accuracy by factor of 10


U.S. scientists said Thursday they have built the world’s most precise clock, whose ticking rate varies less than two parts in 1 quintillion — or 10 times better than any other timepiece.

The clock, made from the element ytterbium, could be used for technological advancements beyond timekeeping, such as in navigation systems, magnetic fields and temperature.

“The stability of the ytterbium lattice clocks opens the door to a number of exciting practical applications of high performance timekeeping,” Andrew Ludlow, a physicist at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology and co-author of the study, said in a statement.

While mechanical clocks use the movement of a pendulum to keep time, atomic clocks use an electromagnetic signal of light emitted at an exact frequency to move electrons in cesium atoms.

The physicists built the ytterbium clocks using about 10,000 rare earth atoms cooled to 10 microkelvin — 10 millionths of a degree above absolute zero — and trapped in an optical lattice made of laser light.

Another laser that “ticks” 518 trillion times per second triggers a transition between two energy levels in the atoms. The clock’s high stability is due to the large number of atoms.

The new timepieces can achieve precise results very quickly. Technicians must average the current U.S. civilian time standard — the NIST-F1 cesium fountain clock — for 400,000 seconds, equivalent to around five days, to obtain the best performance. But the new ytterbium clocks can achieve that same result in about one second of averaging time.

The study was published in the journal Science.