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Swiss sets sights on miniscule atomic clock

Swiss sets sights on miniscule atomic clock
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Clocks and watches – they are our everyday companions, our faithful time keepers. We regulate our lives according to them. But are they totally trustworthy? Can a precise and perfect timepiece ever exist?

The answer is the atomic clock, which Swiss scientists are developing at CSEM (Centre Suisse d’électronique et microtechnique) in the Swiss city of Neuchatel.

The atomic clock measures time accurately, because it relies on the radiation emitted by atoms. It means that the frequency emitted by atoms of hydrogen are measured, and that gives the reference for the time. The original version of the atomic clock, built in the 90s, was the size of a household washing machine.

But CSEM scientists working in Neuchatel’s old astronomical observatory are moving steadily towards the progressive miniaturisation of the atomic clock. Their goal is to reduce it to the size of a sugar cube.

Miniaturisation will greatly reduce manufacturing costs and power consumption allowing this technology to be used more widely, possibly it could even enter the consumer market in battery-operated devices, like GPS or smart phones.

According to physicist Steve Lecomte, what is known as the heart of the clock is key. It has to be reduced in size to nearly a millimetre: “Minitiarisation is useful in order to put atomic clocks in more instruments and mobile devices. Our ultimate goal here at CSEM is work towards having an atomic timepiece in a wrist-watch.”

Scientists not only hope to install atomic clocks in consumer electronic devices, but they want to use them for scientific purposes, such as verifying Einstein’s theory of relativity.

“If we were to put an atomic clock in a smartphone with a GPS for example, then we’d have a frequency base in the GPS which would allow a faster sychronisation with geo-positioning satellites and therefore a more efficient device,” explained CSEM physicist Jacques Haesler.

“Right now, if you have in a wrist-watch, you have to wind it up from time to time. Maybe every day or every few weeks. With an atomic clock inside, in theory you’ll only need to set it once every 3,000 years, providing of course your battery lasts that long,” he added.

Today the best atomic clocks are able to keep time to the point where they will gain or lose a second, every one billion years, and they are powered by an extremely tiny engine. This miniscule part, only a millimetre across, holds the key to a future in which clocks will always be running on time.