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Super accurate nuclear clock proposed


March 14, 2012

The Weltzeituhr (World Clock) at Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany isn't anywhere near as accurate as the nuclear clock proposed by researchers (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Weltzeituhr (World Clock) at Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany isn't anywhere near as accurate as the nuclear clock proposed by researchers (Photo: Shutterstock)

The NIST-F1 atomic clock that currently serves as primary time and frequency standard for the U.S. is expected to neither gain nor lose a second in more than 100 million years. That might sound pretty accurate, but a proposed nuclear clock could make it look like a cheap digital wristwatch. It is claimed that the proposed clock would neither gain nor lose 1/20th of a second in 14 billion years. To put that in context, that’s the estimated age of the universe.

In the simplest terms, atomic clocks use the orbiting electrons of an atom – in the case of NIST-F1, cesium 133 – as a clock pendulum. But researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Nevada say that relying on nuclear physics, rather than atomic physics, would enable a clock that is accurate to 19 decimal places and nearly 100 times more accurate than the most accurate atomic clocks in use today.

“We have shown that by using lasers to orient the electrons in a very specific way, one can use the orbiting neutron of an atomic nucleus as the clock pendulum, making a so-called nuclear clock with unparalleled accuracy,” says Professor Victor Flambaum, the Head of Theoretical Physics in the UNSW School of Physics.

Unlike atomic clocks, whose sample electrons are relatively loosely bound making them more susceptible to external pertubations that can affect their oscillation rate, nuclear clocks would retain their accuracy for much longer as the neutron is held so tightly to the nucleus.

Professor Flambaum says a nuclear clock, "would allow scientists to test fundamental physical theories at unprecedented levels of precision and provide an unmatched tool for applied physics research.”

The research team’s paper is published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Source: University of New South Wales

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

My God. Did Hiroshima and Fukushima teach us nothing?!

Adrian Bancilhon

@ Adrian - I'm pretty sure there is quite a large difference between an atomic explosion and measuring the orbit of an electron. Especially convincing is the fact that atomic clocks have been running in the U.S. (and possibly other places around the world) since the 1950's. I'm no physicist but i'll take the sixty some odd year safe track record as an indication that there really isn't much to worry about in an atomic clock.


There are very few catastrophic failures of nuclear power plants. When there are, there are also explanations which explain why it was not down to the actual process of making power, but an external factor like human intervention or earthquake. It's incredible to me that people like you opt away from the only answer to our power needs. Renewable power sources can't produce enough power to keep our word going, and the harmful side effects from burning coal wont do. So unless you have an answer to the worlds power needs other than nuclear power... consider your opinion. oh yeah cool clock...

Ross Jenkins

Interesting. Perhaps it could be used to (re)verify the theory of relativity experiments.


"My God. Did Hiroshima... teach us nothing?!"

Well, it taught us that dropping atom/nuclear bombs on cities is a ghastly, cataclysmic thing to do, WHICH IS WHY IT'S NEVER HAPPENED AGAIN.

A pretty good lesson, really...

Keith Reeder

Good for experiments. Time and seconds are defined in relation to natural phenomenon. First it was earth's revolution around the sun, which wasn't accurate. Then a definition in relation to caesium 133. Now with such accuracy, the definition will again change. And soon time may have no relation to time of day. The day itself is related to the time. This has caused problems with nature's natural cycles built within man, at the pineal gland in the brain. This will result in greater anxiety, depression and rage in the future, both adults and children. Combined with isolated environment of time, media and gaming consoles, the results can be catastrophic.

Dawar Saify

My God. Did Hiroshima and Fukushima teach us nothing?!

You have to burn your dictionary because they contain the words nuclear and atom.

Smit Nols

Lesson of Fukushima

If your reactor needs pumps to prevent overheating make sure they run off the reactors heat.


While you are at it - please set it a couple minutes slow so I will always be on time!


...and lesson #2 of Fukushima backup generators: don't put them at or below ground level where they can flood and fail. Doh!

Matt Rings

While there may be "few" catastrophic failures of nuclear power plants, they are spectacular and wildly dangerous enough to seriously consider doing away with them. They remain the "preferred" power generation for the simple reason of their bomb making potential and its use in warfare. It's a political choice, not a scientific or sane one, either. What can replace it? Do your homework on thorium. Same power generation, no explosions. It's been around for some time, is proven, but only the Chinese and Russians are building power plants with them.


Ooops! I forgot the link. http://energyfromthorium.com/


...and how big of a government grant are they going to want to build this clock. Is there a warranty, or do we have to commit to a 14 billion year maintenance agreement?


"My God. Did Hiroshima and Fukushima teach us nothing?!"

This is the problem of using general terms, like "nuclear", coupled with poor science understanding. This nuclear clock is so far from being a bomb or power plant, it's like saying the World Series is the similar to World War II because both has the term "World" in it.

@ TheRogue1000, btw Thorium is still "nuclear power", but much better source material than Uranium.

Calvin k

re; TheRogue1000

Little things like we already have the infrastructure for uranium fueled reactors and that their "waste" is fuel that can as easily be used for power generation have nothing to do with it. And of course it gives reliable 24/7 power unlike wind and solar.


This is why Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) imaging method had to change its name to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Some people and congress-persons automatically freak out at the mention of the word "Nuclear"...

Amos Shapir
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