‘An optical atomic clock on a chip unleashes a revolution in time registration’

(04-03-2022) Bart Kuyken is coordinating a European project to develop the world's first fully optical atomic clock on a chip. A major improvement over current atomic clocks that are responsible for time registration in, for example, navigation and GPS systems.

A revolution in timekeeping

tmp_1645722270784.jpgAn optical atomic clock makes it possible to obtain a time signal that outperforms current traditional clocks in terms of resolution and stability. ‘With this clock you can, in principle, measure time accurately up to 10-18. This means that if you measured the entire time of the universe with this optical clock, you might have a margin of error of one second. With a normal atomic clock based on a radio frequency you already have such a margin of error after one year. In mobile, air or space applications, this can revolutionize timekeeping. But this clock can also have a major impact for measuring distances or frequencies,’ says Professor Bart Kuyken enthusiastically.

The optical atomic clock is based on optical frequency combs, light sources with a spectrum consisting of millions of laser lines. Because these laser lines are at a fixed distance from each other, the image of a comb is created in the frequency domain, hence the name. John Hall and Theodor Hänsch were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005 for this invention from 1998.

In addition to optical clocks, the technique is also used as a source for spectroscopy. This means that with this technique, you can perform very accurate measurements. For example, using radiation from different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, they can determine the properties of compound molecular, atomic or subatomic particles, or detect the minimal movements of stars when a planet revolves around them.

However, the big problem until now has been that these optical atomic clocks are very large. ‘It is almost impossible to take such devices to space, where you could use them, for example, for GPS systems on satellites. The aim of this project is to miniaturize a clock on an optical chip. You can easily produce these chips in bulk, which would enable many applications in many domains. Self-driving cars could determine their position much more precisely, but also, for example, robots that plant seeds, in telecommunications, …’

Close collaboration between industry and academia

An atomic clock on chip-scale

The consortium is a close collaboration between industrial SMEs and the academic world. With Ghent University, the École Polytechnique de Lausanne, Danmarks Tekniske Universitet and the companies Menlo Systems, co-founded by Nobel prize winner Theodor Hänsch, and Ligentec, the consortium is pooling expertise from chip level to system integration to translate this new technology into a commercial product.

EIC Pathfinder Scholarships

For the call European Innovation Council (EIC) Pathfinder Open 2021, a total of 908 proposals were submitted, 868 evaluated and 56 proposals selected for funding, one of which is coordinated by Ghent University. With this funding, EIC supports the further research of bold ideas for radically new technologies. It focuses on high risk/high gain, interdisciplinary cutting edge scientific collaborations that support technological breakthroughs.

About professor Bart Kuyken

Professor Bart Kuyken is an ERC grantee. In 2018 he received a starting grant for his ELECTRIC project focusing on chip-scale electrically powered optical frequency combs. He leads a team of researchers at the Photonics Research Group focusing on the integration of nonlinear optical functions on silicon chips.

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