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Scientists on the threshold of a grand breakthrough: nuclear clocks become a reality


Scientists on the threshold of a grand breakthrough: nuclear clocks become a reality

Thorium-229 was the key to creating nuclear clocks that can measure time with incredible accuracy.

LMU scientists have made important progress in the development of nuclear clocks as part of an international collaboration, which could open up new possibilities for studying the fundamental forces of the universe.

Atomic clocks are currently capable of measuring time with such precision that they lose or gain less than a second in 30 billion years. However, nuclear clocks can make timekeeping even more accurate. “We’re talking about the forces that hold the world together at its core,” says Professor Peter Thirolf, who has been studying nuclear clocks for many years.

On the way to the first nuclear clock, Tirolf and his colleague Dr. Sandro Kraemer made important contributions. They successfully determined the excitation energy of thorium-229, which is planned to be used in the future as an element of time measurement in nuclear clocks.

The main fundamental difference between nuclear clocks and atomic clocks is that the former register the forces inside the atomic nucleus. Of all the atomic nuclei known to science, only the thorium-229 nucleus can be used for this purpose.

The peculiarity of thorium-229 is that its nucleus can be excited using a relatively low frequency of light, which can be obtained using UV lasers. Research in this direction dragged on for 40 years, until in 2016 the Tirolf group confirmed the excited state of the thorium-229 nucleus.

Improving the connection between the element of time measurement and the clock mechanism is the next stage of the work of scientists. “You can think of it as a fork setting,” Kraemer explains. “Just as a musical instrument tries to match the tuning frequency of a fork, so a laser tries to match the frequency of the thorium nucleus.”

To determine this frequency, the researchers used the “frequency comb” method, which was developed by Professor Theodor Hensch, a colleague of Tyrolf at LMU, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2005 for this work.

“We now know the approximate wavelength we need,” says Tirolf. He adds that the next task will be to create an excitation with a laser, and then find the desired frequency with increasing accuracy using more precise lasers.

With the successful completion of the project, not only new directions in fundamental physical research are possible, but also practical applications. With the help of nuclear clocks, scientists will be able to detect the smallest changes in the Earth’s gravitational field, which occur, for example, during the shift of tectonic plates or before volcanic eruptions. The first prototypes may appear in less than ten years. “We may even be in time to redefine the second in 2030,” physicists hope.

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