Few things fascinate us more than watches and precision. Knowing what the weather will be like during the week and what time it is, these are two human obsessions. That’s why the news we bring you today is one that brings us satisfaction.
Scientists have initiated a project to develop a new generation of clocks with a precision of up to 1 second in 300 billion years, which is approximately 22 times the age of the universe.
Researchers at the European XFEL X-ray facility have explored the potential of scandium as the foundation for nuclear clocks, long regarded as the next step forward in precision compared to the current generation of atomic clocks.
From cesium to scandium
Most atomic clocks are based on oscillators like cesium, which can oscillate at very reliable frequencies when excited by microwave radiation.
For example, the NIST-F2 clock from the National Institute of Standards and Technology of the U.S. Department of Commerce would neither gain nor lose a second in about 300 million years.
But scientists are ambitious to go one step further and use the oscillation of the atomic nucleus (instead of the electron shell) to create the next level in time measurement.
At the European XFEL X-ray laser, researchers have found a promising candidate in the element scandium. Available as a high-purity metal foil or as scandium dioxide compound, the atomic resonances of this element are much sharper than those of electrons in the atomic shell.
However, making them oscillate is more challenging as it requires X-rays with an energy of 12.4 kiloelectronvolts, about 10,000 times the energy of visible light.
Such excitation produces an extremely narrow resonance width, a key factor in clock precision. The researchers demonstrated a width of only 1.4 femtoelectronvolts, 1 x 10-15 feV, which could enable a precision of 1 in 10,000,000,000,000.
According to scientists, the potential precision level of a nuclear clock using scandium could be equivalent to one second in 300 billion years.
In other words, if your clock loses a second per year, it would be 9,512 years behind by the time a scandium-based nuclear clock loses one second.