A team of researchers from the UCLA School of Engineering has developed an optical clock that can measure time intervals with a precision to 270 quintillionths of a second (2.7x10-16 s). Not only is this one of the most precise timepieces ever built, it is also very small. The clock is just 1 cubic centimeter in volume, small enough to fit on a silicon chip.
The average optical clock, which uses pulses of light to measure time, is currently the size of a desktop computer, too big and cumbersome to use in spacecraft and satellite technology. Shrinking the clock was achieved by using a similar process to the production of computer silicon chips, and the team envisions having these clocks in consumer electronics.
“Measuring the time it takes for a pulse of light to reflect from an object and return back to us also tells us a distance,” Chee Wei Wong, the project’s principal investigator, said in a statement. “This could help in precision laser distance ranging, such as in sensing for self-driven automobiles and aerial vehicles.”
The research was published in Science Advances, and it illustrates how this new clock approaches the world’s most accurate devices while maintaining its versatility. For these reasons, the clock will also have a serious scientific application, from refining the values of the universe’s fundamental constants to increasing the precision of astronomical measurements.
Although not as small as the world's smallest atomic clocks, this optical clock – the most accurate of its kind – offers advantages in that the entire system is contained within a tiny volume.
“If incorporated with other technologies into infrared telescope observatories, this device can enable the detection of Earth-like planets and celestial objects 100 times smaller than that, which was previously impossible,” said Shu-Wei Huang, a UCLA engineering scientist and the project’s lead author.
Among all these benefits, the new clock has the potential to take us a step closer to an unsolved problem in physics: working out the nature of time itself.