Researchers at California Institute of Technology and NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have come up with a new design for an optical atomic clock that holds promise to be the most accurate and precise yet.
Nicknamed the "tweezer clock," it employs technology in which so-called laser tweezers are used to manipulate individual atoms.
"One of the goals of physicists is to be able to tell time as precisely as possible," says Manuel Endres, assistant professor of physics at Caltech.
Accuracy refers to the ability of the clock to correctly pin down the time and precision refers to its ability to tell the time in fine detail.
While the ultra-precise clocks may not be needed for everyday purposes of counting time, they could lead to advances in fundamental physics research as well as new technologies that are yet to be imagined.
Atomic clocks are used around the world to precisely tell time. Each "tick" of the clock depends on atomic vibrations and their effects on surrounding electromagnetic fields.
Standard atomic clocks in use today, based on the atom caesium, tell time by "counting" radio frequencies.
These clocks can measure time to a precision of one second per every hundred of millions of years. Newer atomic clocks that measure optical frequencies of light are even more precise, and may eventually replace the radio-based ones, said the study.
The new clock design builds upon two types of optical atomic clocks already in use.
The first type is based on a single trapped charged atom, or ion, while the second uses thousands of neutral atoms trapped in what is called an optical lattice.
Instead of using a collection of many atoms, the new design uses 40 atoms -- and those atoms are precisely controlled with laser tweezers.
"This approach bridges two branches of physics--single-atom control techniques and precision measurement," said Ivaylo Madjarov, a Caltech graduate student and lead author of the new study published in the journal Physical Review X.
"We're pioneering a new platform for atomic clocks".
The team said that the new system is ideally suited for future research into quantum technologies.