Brett DePaola - Kansas State University

Building a Better Atomic Clock

by Brett DePaola, Kansas State University

In the year 2034 incremental advances in the field of atomic, molecular and optical physics (AMOP) will give rise to technologies that enable breakthroughs in areas as diverse as navigation, internet and electrical transmission, medical and scientific imaging, and detection of hazardous materials. These breakthroughs will profoundly affect our health, safety and economy – even if we don’t realize it. 

Cold atom technology will be used to develop next-generation “atomic” clocks.  Within a few years, the precision of these clocks will improve by two orders of magnitude.  Clocks are used in many areas of metrology, or measurement, for example to define the second.  But to define a second currently takes about a month of “data taking” from an atomic clock.  The new generation of clocks will provide better accuracy in about a day.  The advantages in metrology are obvious.  But better clocks also mean better navigation, be it GPS, or accelerometer-based systems.  Internet data transmission also relies on good clocks, as does smart grid technology.  Improved clocks will positively affect all of us, though we will not necessarily be aware of it.

Tabletop ultrafast laser systems currently generate x-rays through high harmonic generation.  Among other applications, these x-rays are used for imaging of complex systems.  As this technology develops, tabletop devices will be used to image the molecular structure in proteins and other complex biological samples.  This will greatly improve our understanding of the dynamics of these complex entities: how do they do what they do.  With an improved understanding of the dynamics, we will have a handle on treating many health issues, from auto-immune issues to cancer.

A final example is a special class of ultrafast laser called a “frequency comb” (FC).  FCs combine the properties of superior optical quality beams, ultra-high spectral resolution, and phenomenal spectral range. They are already used in cutting edge spectroscopy studies, but will find a place in biology labs, where they will be used for studies of the temporal evolution of proteins, peptides, and the like.  They will also appear on the battlefield, and in former war zones, where they will be used to sniff out mines, and chemical weapons and biological weapons, or in mines and chemical factories where they will provide early detection of explosive or hazardous gasses.

Achieving these breakthroughs depends on reversing the downward spiral of federal funding (in constant dollars) for university based basic scientific research. 

Brett D. DePaola is a professor in the Department of Physics at Kansas State University. His work has been supported by the U.S. Department of Energy. 

If you want to make sure that we realize the benefits from this and other scientific advances, let your members of Congress know that federal funding for science matters and should be made a higher national priority. The Science Coalition’s Science Matters toolkit can help you get started.
Categories Physics