As a result of innovation developed at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and in collaboration with partners in the industry, the flexibility and reduced manufacturing cost of miniature vapor cells have enabled the commercialization of a wide range of applications, including clocks, gyroscopes, and magnetometers for use in navigation, GPS backup, and medical purposes. Dr. John Kitching of NIST invented and patented a chip-scale sensor technology, and ever since he has worked with industry to apply his chip-scale sensor invention into the world’s first miniature commercial atomic clocks, first miniature commercial atomic magnetometers, and first commercial chip-scale atomic vapor cells.
While sensors based on clouds of atoms excited by lasers have been under development for the past two decades, they are almost always large, tabletop research experiments, unsuitable for virtually all field applications. Dr. Kitching's work led to the development of miniature devices, including an atomic clock the size of a grain of rice. The devices based on the NIST invention can be mass-produced for use in widespread technological tools.
Due to the wide interest and need by industry for access to this revolutionary innovation, NIST made the technology available for use to meet NIST's objectives to ensure that the potential for the technology is met in each of the various applications. As with many of NIST's inventions, this chip-scale sensor technology was an early-stage innovation, and Dr. Kitching devoted an extraordinary amount of time and effort to transfer the fundamental innovation to industry. This commitment to collaborating enabled research partners to commercialize Dr. Kitching’s innovations into these products. Without Dr. Kitching's invention and his consistent efforts to communicate the details of his work and know-how to industry, this technology would likely not have been adapted to so many applications that benefit the public. This exceptional technology transfer activity exemplifies the essence of NIST’s mission to work with industry to promote industrial competitiveness and further the forefront of technology to benefit the public.