Atomic clocks have been around since the 1950’s. They have provided incredible accuracy in timekeeping with most modern atomic clocks not losing a second in time in a million years.
Thanks to atomic clocks many technologies have become possible and have changed the way we live our lives. Satellite communication, satellite navigation, internet shopping and network communication are only possible thanks to atomic clocks.
Atomic clocks are the basis for the world’s global timescale Universal Coordinated Time (UTC) and are the reference that many computer networks use as a time source to distribute amongst its devices using NTP (Network Time Protocol) and a time server.
Atomic clocks are based on the atom caesium -133. This element has been traditionally used in atomic clocks as its resonance or vibrations during a particular energy state, or extremely high (over 9 billion) and therefore can provide high levels of accuracy.
However, new types of atomic clocks are on the horizon that will boast even more accuracy with the next generation of atomic clocks neither gaining nor losing a second in 200 million years.
The next generation of atomic clocks no longer rely on the caesium atom but use elements such as mercury or strontium and instead of using microwaves such as the caesium clocks these new clocks use light which has higher frequencies.
Strontium’s resonance also exceeds over 430 trillion which is vastly superior to the 9.2 billion vibrations that caesium manages.
Currently atomic clocks can be utilised by computer systems by using either a radio or GPS clock or dedicated NTP time server. These devices can receive the time signal transmitted by atomic clocks and distribute them amongst network devices and computers.
However, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) have revealed a miniature atomic clock that measures just 1.5 millimetres on a side and about 4 millimetres tall. It consumes less than 75 thousandths of a watt, and has a stability of about one part in 10 billion, equivalent to a clock that would neither gain nor lose more than a second in 300 years.
In the future these devices could be integrated into computer systems, replacing the current real time clock chips, which are notoriously inaccurate and can drift.