World's Tiniest Atomic Clock Hits the Shelves, Will Stay Right There

By Veronique Greenwood
May 4, 2011 9:43 PMNov 19, 2019 11:39 PM


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Dinky but incredibly accurate: the new atomic clock is the size of a matchbox.

What’s the News: The world’s smallest atomic clock has just hit the market, for a cool $1,500. It’s about the size of a cellphone battery, 100 times smaller than earlier clocks, and uses 100 times less power. But don’t reach for your wallet just yet: unless you’re planning to explore a deep-sea trench, snazzy as this new clock is, it won’t give you the time of day. How the Heck:

  • Atomic clocks keep time in millionths of a second. They draw this remarkable ability from tuning microwave frequencies to the oscillation of atoms, usually cesium, between energy states (and radioactivity has nothing to do with it, in case you were wondering). But they don’t have a friendly little LED display—they’re used mainly to keep devices synchronized and won’t ever show up with a watchband.

  • The major innovation of this clock is that it uses a more efficient laser to twiddle its cesium atoms, which reside in a tiny container no larger than a grain of rice. This cuts down its energy usage dramatically and allowed engineers to shrink it to its current diminutive size.

  • And this device isn’t just any gadget. It’s one of the rare DARPA products available on the consumer market. Called the Chip Scale Atomic Clock and being sold by Symmetricom, it is the result of a decade of work funded by DARPA.

What’s the Context:

  • Once upon a time, seconds were defined in terms of the Earth’s rotation around the sun, but no more: as of 1967, the second is defined in terms of the periods of the microwaves required to bump cesium into a higher state.

  • The world’s governments run on atomic time. U.S. time is synchronized to one specific atomic clock, located in Colorado at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The Future Holds: The mini clock could be built into hand-held devices to keep things synchronized when electromagnetic communication—via phone, GPS, and so on—is impossible. So if you’re deep in the ocean or a cave and have no access to satellites, you can still perform experiments or other activities that are perfectly synchronized with colleagues on the surface. Until someone develops a device that harnesses the clock's talents, though, those of us without manufacturing capabilities will have to remain atomic-clock-less. (via EurekAlert

) Image credit: Symmetricon

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