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Two Scottish Tech Companies to Help Miniaturise Atomic Clocks

Michael Behr

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atomic clocks

Smaller atomic clocks will help improve satellite navigation systems.

Two Scottish tech companies will join the Universities of Strathclyde and Birmingham in working to miniaturise atomic clocks.

WideBlue and Kelvin Nanotechnology’s contribution will help improve Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) by making them more accurate. They will also make the clocks more user-friendly and will address the scalability of other quantum technologies.

Atomic clocks use the resonance frequency of an atom to keep time. An atom of strontium oscillates at around 430 trillion cycles per second. Not only does the sheer number of cycles per second make atomic clocks more accurate, but the resonance does not degrade anywhere near as fast as other resonators. In addition, one atom of strontium of the same isotope oscillates at the exact same frequency as another. This means that any two atomic clocks will keep the exact same time.

The timing accuracy is so exact that an atomic clock will neither gain nor lose a second in over 30 million years.

Atomic clocks are ideal for use in GNSS due to their accuracy and consistency. Each satellite network contains multiple atomic clocks that contribute precision timing data, which is decoded to provide location data by effectively synchronizing each receivers’ atomic clocks with those of the satellite.

Managing Director of Wideblue Russell Overend, said: “The project is a feasibility study which aims to facilitate the miniaturisation of state-of-the-art atomic clocks.

“To achieve such high timing resolution, the atomic clock makes use of ultra-narrow transitions in strontium atoms, providing orders of magnitude better performance than their rubidium counterparts due to narrower atomic features.

“In simple terms, the narrower the atomic transition the more accurate the atomic clock. Wideblue’s role in the project is to develop the optical system that will deliver the laser light onto the gMOT chip.

“Kelvin Nanotechnology will manufacture the gMOT and compact collimation optics designed by Wideblue. The University of Strathclyde will design the gMOT chip, and the University of Birmingham will perform the testing of the prototype optical system.”

 

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Kelvin Nanotechnology’s Dr James McGilligan said: “Atomic clocks are an integral component in modern technology and impact our daily routines from computing and financial transactions to the navigation systems we use in our phones and cars.

“As state-of-the-art atomic clocks push new boundaries in precision measurement, we face a new challenge of bringing this complex and large physical apparatus into a compact and user-friendly system where we can make the largest societal and economic impact.

“Our current collaboration with Wideblue and our academic partners aims to address the scalability of one such atomic clock by reducing the optical constraints into scalable micro-fabricated components as a critical step to bringing laboratory performance out into real-world applications.”

Roger McKinlay, Challenge Director – Quantum Technologies at UKRI, added: “Small, low-cost atomic clocks will be essential as we develop a resilient Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) infrastructure to support our financial, power distribution and communications services.

“With support from the Quantum Technologies Challenge in UKRI – part of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme – we are ensuring that the UK economy and society will benefit from the next generation of quantum devices and be quantum ready.”

Michael Behr

Senior Staff Writer

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