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Nuclear clocks could be the most accurate form of modern timekeeping

A nuclear breakthrough could lead to the most precise form of timekeeping ever (Mitchel Lensink on Unsplash)
A nuclear breakthrough could lead to the most precise form of timekeeping ever (Mitchel Lensink on Unsplash)

A recent breakthrough at CERN’s nuclear physics facility has enabled the team to achieve the decay of the thorium-229 nucleus in a solid-state system.

This development could mean that an even more precise form of clock could be created.

Currently, atomic clocks are the most accurate form of timekeeping, but a nuclear one could do even better.

But what actually is a nuclear clock, and what makes it different?

What is a nuclear clock?

A nuclear clock tells the time based on a periodic transition between two states of an atomic nucleus, namely the nucleus of an isotope of the element thorium, thorium-229.

As an atomic nucleus decays, it transitions between its two states, the ground state and the higher energy state. This process can be tracked and therefore used to tell the time.

According to CERN, such a nuclear clock could be up to seven times more precise than today’s atomic clocks. This is due to the different sizes of a nucleus compared to those of an atom.

How would a nuclear clock be built?

As for how exactly such a clock could be built, the next step is to build lasers that will trigger and drive the transition between states within the clock’s mechanism.

“Solid-state systems such as magnesium fluoride crystals are one of two possible settings in which to build a future thorium-229 nuclear clock,” said the research team’s spokesperson, Piet Van Duppen. “Our study marks a crucial step in this direction, and it will facilitate the development of the lasers needed to drive the periodic transition that would make such a clock tick.”

Atomic clocks currently cost around $30,000, so you would imagine its more accurate sibling will cost even more when it finally does become a reality.

While it may not be replacing any mechanical or digital clocks in our homes or on our wrists anytime soon, it’s an impressive step forward for any nuclear research teams.