As with the advance of computer technology that seems to exponentially increase in capability every year, atomic clocks too seem to increase dramatically in their accuracy year on year.
Now, those pioneers of atomic clock technology, the US National Institute of Standards Time (NIST), have announced they have managed to produce an atomic clock with accuracy twice that of any clocks that have gone before.
The clock is based in a single aluminium atom and NIST claim it can remain accurate without losing a second in over 3.7 billion years (about the same length of time that life has existed Earth).
The previous most accurate clock was devised by the German Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) and was an optical clock based on a strontium atom and was accurate to a second in over a billion years. This new atomic clock by NIST is also an optical clock but is based on aluminium atoms, which according to NIST’s research with this clock, is far more accurate.
Optical clocks use lasers to hold atoms still and differ to the traditional atomic clocks used by computer networks using NTP servers (Network Time Protocol) and other technologies which are based on fountain clocks. Not only do these traditional fountain clocks use Caesium as their time keeping atom but instead of lasers they use super-cooled liquids and vacuums to control the atoms.
Thanks to work by NIST, PTB and the UK’s NPL (National Physical Laboratory) atomic clocks continue to advance exponentially, however, these new optical atomic clocks based on atoms like aluminium, mercury and strontium are a long way from being used as a basis for UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).
UTC is governed by a constellation of caesium fountain clocks that while still accurate to a second in 100,000 years are by far less precise than these optical clocks and are based on technology over fifty years old. And unfortunately until the world’s science community can agree on an atom and clock design to be used internationally, these precise atomic clocks will remain a play thing of the scientific community only.