NIST's Atomic Clocks
All clocks must have a regular, constant or repetitive process or action to mark off equal increments of time. Examples include the daily movement of the sun across the sky, a swinging pendulum or vibrating crystal. In the case of atomic clocks, the beat is kept by a transition between two energy levels in an atom.
NIST-F1 and NIST-F2 are microwave clocks, based on a particular vibration in cesium atoms of about 9 billion cycles per second. Optical atomic clocks are based on ions or atoms vibrating at optical frequencies (visible, ultraviolet or infrared light), which are about 100,000 times higher than microwave frequencies. Because optical clocks divide time into smaller units—like a ruler with finer tick marks—they ultimately could be perhaps 100 times more accurate and stable than microwave clocks. Higher frequency is one of the features enabling improved accuracy and stability. One key advance making optical atomic clocks possible was the development of frequency combs at JILA, NIST and elsewhere. Frequency combs link optical frequencies to lower frequencies that can be correlated with microwave standards and counted.
NIST's first all-optical atomic clock, and the best in the world for several years, was based on a single mercury ion. Its performance was then surpassed by NIST's quantum logic clock, based on a single aluminum ion. This clock got its nickname because it borrows techniques from experimental quantum computing. Aluminum is insensitive to changes in magnetic and electric fields and temperature, making it a great ion for atomic clocks, but it wasn't practical until NIST developed new quantum computing technologies.
NIST and JILA are leaders in the development of so-called optical lattice clocks. These clocks trap thousands of heavy metal atoms in an "optical lattice" formed by intersecting laser beams. Research clocks at NIST use ytterbium atoms and JILA research clocks use strontium atoms. Thanks to the presence of so many atoms, these clocks offer the advantages of strong signals and parallel processing. In addition, the atoms are held virtually still in the lattice, reducing errors from atomic motion and collisions that otherwise would need to be corrected.
Optical lattice clocks are rapidly improving, and continue to set new performance records so often that it is difficult to keep track of the latest records. Both the JILA strontium and NIST ytterbium optical lattice clocks are rapidly advancing in stability. And now, for the first time in decades, a single type of atomic clock, an optical lattice clock, simultaneously holds the records for both precision and stability – and it is likely optical lattice clock performance will continue to significantly improve.
This rapid improvement in optical lattice clocks at JILA and NIST results from key scientific breakthroughs. One has been the development of extremely stable lasers, including the world's most stable laser at JILA. Another key breakthrough has been development of new theories about how atoms trapped in the optical lattices interact, and application of these theories to significantly reduce the uncertainties in optical lattice clocks. And much of the improvement results from the hard and creative work of many scientists, students and postdoctoral fellows to continually find new ways to make a series of many small improvements in clock performance.
NIST also has demonstrated a calcium atomic clock that is extremely stable for short time periods. This clock has the potential to be made portable, making it attractive for commercial applications.
Evaluating Atomic Clock Performance
Accuracy refers to a clock's capability to measure the accepted value of the frequency at which the clock atoms vibrate, or resonate. Accuracy is crucial for time measurements that must be traced to primary standards such as NIST-F1 and NIST-F2. Technical terms for accuracy include "systematic uncertainty" or "fractional frequency uncertainty"—that is, how well scientists can define shifts from the true frequency of an atom with confidence.
Cesium standards like NIST-F1 and NIST-F2 are the ultimate "rulers" for time because the definition of the SI second is based on the cesium atom. More specifically, the SI unit of frequency, the Hertz, is defined internationally by the oscillations of a cesium atom. Officially, no atomic clock can be more accurate than the best cesium clock by definition. That is, only a direct measurement of the particular cesium transition can be considered the ultimate measurement of accuracy, and all other (non-cesium) clocks can only be compared to the accuracy of a cesium clock. This is partly a semantic issue. If after further development and testing the definition of the second (or Hertz) were changed to be based on the strontium atom transition, for example, the NIST/JILA strontium atom lattice clock would become the most accurate clock in the world.
To get around this measurement hurdle, NIST scientists evaluate optical atomic clocks by comparing them to each other (to obtain a ratio, or relative frequency, for which there is no official unit), and by measuring all deviations from the true resonant frequency of the atom involved, carefully accounting for all possible perturbations such as magnetic fields in the environment. The optical clock performance is also directly compared to the NIST-F1 standard. For several years both NIST ion clocks have had measured relative uncertainties much smaller than NIST-F1's.
(In general literature, NIST sometimes uses the term "precise" to describe the performance of optical clocks, because it less technical and has a more positive connotation than uncertainty. Precision implies that repeated measurements fall within a particular error spread around a given value. In everyday definitions of precision, this value is not necessarily the "correct" one—you can be precise without necessarily being accurate. However, in the context of optical clocks, NIST uses precision specifically to mean the spread around the true or accepted value for the atom's resonant frequency.)
Stability is another important metric for evaluating atomic clocks. NIST defines stability as how precisely the duration of each clock tick matches every other tick. Because the ticks of any atomic clock must be averaged for some period to provide the best results, a key benefit of high stability is that optimal results can be achieved very quickly. Stability is not traceable to a time standard, but in many applications stability is more important than absolute accuracy. For example, most communications and GPS positioning applications depend on synchronization of different clocks, requiring stability but not necessarily the greatest accuracy. (Other common terms for stability include precision.)
The optical lattice clocks at NIST and JILA are much more stable than NIST-F1. NIST-F1 must be averaged for about 400,000 seconds (about five days) to achieve its best performance of about 1 second in 100 million years. In contrast, the ytterbium and strontium lattice clocks reach that level of performance in a few seconds of averaging, and after a few hours of averaging are about 100 times more stable than NIST-F1.
NIST scientists are also working to improve the portability of next-generation atomic clocks for applications outside the laboratory.