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Optical Clocks

Definition: time measurement devices based on optical frequency standards

German: optische Uhren

Categories: photonic devices, optical metrology

How to cite the article; suggest additional literature


An optical clock is a clock the output of which is derived from an optical frequency standard. As explained in the article on optical frequency standards, such a reference is based on atoms or ions which are kept in an optical trap and subject to laser cooling in order to suppress Doppler broadening. Their transition frequency is probed with a frequency-stabilized laser and related to lower (microwave) frequencies via an optical clockwork. An optical clock can offer an extremely high frequency precision and stability, exceeding the performance of the best cesium atomic clocks.

In the early years of optical clocks, a severe challenge was to relate the stable optical frequency to a microwave frequency standard such as a cesium atomic clock: the required optical clockworks, at that time realized as frequency chains, were very difficult to make, and were applicable only to certain isolated optical frequencies. Recently, however, very much simpler and much more versatile while equally precise optical clockworks have been realized on the basis of frequency combs from femtosecond mode-locked lasers.

setup of optical clock
Figure 1: Schematic setup of an optical clock. A time signal is generated by a cesium clock. An optical frequency standard is used for reducing the long-term drift of the cesium clock. The frequency comparison is done using an optical clockwork. That clockwork may also provide an optical output, e.g. in the form of a frequency comb, allowing frequency comparison with other optical standards.

Optical clocks are of interest not only for measuring optical frequencies, but also for general timekeeping where ultimate precision is required. Compared with microwave standards such as cesium atomic clocks, they have the following key advantages:

Therefore, it is to be expected that in the not too far future the cesium clock as the fundamental timing reference will be replaced with an optical clock, although it is so far not clear which type of optical clock would be used as such a standard. A lattice clock [7] appears to be a good candidate, but the best choice of a particular clock atom is not obvious. The definition of the second will then be changed to refer to an optical frequency, rather than to a microwave frequency. However, even after that profound change, cesium clocks (and other non-optical atomic clocks, such as rubidium clocks) will continue to play an important role in technological applications as they can be simpler and more compact than optical clocks.


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 [2]S. A. Diddams et al., “An optical clock based on a single trapped 199Hg+ ion”, Science 293, 825 (2001), doi:10.1126/science.1061171
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[4]T. Udem et al., “Optical frequency metrology”, Nature 416, 233 (2002), doi:10.1038/416233a
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[7]M. Takamoto et al., “An optical lattice clock”, Nature 435, 321 (2005), doi:10.1038/nature03541
 [8]A. D. Ludlow et al., “Sr lattice clock at 1 × 10−16 fractional uncertainty by remote optical evaluation with a Ca clock”, Science Express Feb. 14, 2008, doi:10.1126/science.1153341
 [9]C. W. Chou et al., “Frequency comparison of two high-accuracy Al+ optical clocks”, Phys. Rev. Lett. 104 (7), 070802 (2010), doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.104.070802
[10]C. J. Campbell et al., “Single-ion nuclear clock for metrology at the 19th decimal place”, Phys. Rev. Lett. 108 (12), 120802 (2012), doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.108.120802
[11]S. Droste et al., “Optical-frequency transfer over a singe-span 1840 km fiber link”, Phys. Rev. Lett. 111 (11), 110801 (2013), doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.111.110801
[12]B. J. Bloom et al., “A new generation of atomic clocks: accuracy and stability at the 10−18 level”, http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.1137 (2013)
[13]A. D. Ludlow et al., “Optical atomic clocks”, arXiv:1407.3493v2
[14]F. Riehle, “Optical clock networks”, Nature Photon. 11, 25 (2017), doi:10.1038/nphoton.2016.235
[15]W. F. McGrew et al., “Towards the optical second: verifying optical clocks at the SI limit”, Optica 6 (4), 448 (2019), doi:10.1364/OPTICA.6.000448

(Suggest additional literature!)

See also: optical frequency, optical frequency standards, optical clockworks, frequency combs, frequency metrology, stabilization of lasers
and other articles in the categories photonic devices, optical metrology


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