Breakthrough: German atomic clock may redefine the second

A team of German physicists has made a huge breakthrough. According to a report from Tech Times, researchers have developed a new optical single-ion clock that has taken the title of the world’s most accurate clock.

How does the clock work? The timepiece measures the vibrational frequency of ytterbium ions trapped within a network of laser beams as they swing back and forth hundreds of trillions of times each second. Measuring the number of “ticks,” or vibrations of the ytterbium ions is so accurate, physicists predict that the single-ion clock won’t lose time for more than a billion years.

Atomic clock’s aren’t a new thing – the previous record holder for the world’s most accurate clock was made of caesium. Atoms excited by microwave radiation provide the motion by which the devices measure subdivisions of time. The official definition of a second was based on the calculations of caesium clocks.

A second, according to some of the world’s previously leading atomic clocks, is defined as 9.192,631,770 cycles of the transition between two different ions of a caesium atom. While this is pretty close, scientists still thought they could do better.

Researchers at Germany’s Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) have built a new atomic clock that is nearly 100 times more accurate than the leading caesium clocks. “It is regarded as certain that a future redefinition of the SI (International System of Units) second will be based on an optical atomic clock,” the study said.

The difference between this new optical atomic clock and older caesium clocks is in the high excitation frequency of up to 1,000,000,000,000,000 Hz. The newly developed clock is much more stable and thus much more accurate than a caesium clock.

The theory of atomic clocks was developed in the 1980’s by Nobel Prize winner Hans Dehmelt. Many atomic clocks have been built since then, but the new clock from PTB is the first to achieve a level of accuracy only believed to exist on paper.

The study was published in the journal Physical Review Letters. A press release describing the details of the clock’s development can be found here.

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