SLATE: Strontium Lattice for Commercial Optical Clocks

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: School of Physics and Astronomy


Cold atom devices for sensing and metrology are the closest to commercial exploitation. The science is for some applications highly developed and offers unquestioned performance advantages in sensitivity and some steps have been made at making more compact systems. But for genuine and widespread applications substantial improvements need to be made in size, weight and power ('SWAP') and ruggedness of these systems. The project SLATE is concerned with developing an optical lattice clock. The physics package that enables the trapping and probing of laser cooled atoms of strontium atoms is the central component for clock interrogation. Optical lattice clocks use transitions in neutral atoms as quantum frequency references to deliver timing at very high levels of accuracy. This project forms a key part of the development of a commercial strontium clock, using techniques developed in the creation of the world's most stable clocks. The project will support the nucleation of a leading industrial capability for such future atomics packages and chamber products, which will be UK based and also therefore benefit from non-ITAR status.

Our consortium of 2 partners has all of the critical expertise required to prosecute this project. It is led by the highly innovative commercial partner MSL who have a proven track record in bringing novel, state of the art technology in high quality lasers to market. University of Birmingham is leading of the UK National Quantum Technology Hub in Sensors and Metrology, an £80M innovation project including 6 University and over 70 industry partners. As such it provides a number of technology development specialists with expertise in optical clocks, gravity sensors and simulation packages in addition to civil engineering expertise in the use of gravity sensors for underground mapping and links to potential commercial end-users.

By combining the vacuum technology with laser technology through to testing we will also be making unique steps towads a significant step down in size, power and cost requirements of any future Sr based atomic clock.

To-date these components have been developed in isolation. It is important, however, to develop systems that can integrate whilst following a similar ruggedisation and miniaturisation activities. This collaborative programme will develop a clear supply chain of UK-based technology suitable for various applications ranging from satellite-free navigation, ultra-high precision timing for financial trades and exceptionally-precise gravetometers for sub-surface detection.

Planned Impact

Benefits to Industry: A miniaturised optical clock will develop and utilise a number of key technology components including: materials / coatings, vacuum chambers and pumps, laser systems, optics, control systems etc. Whilst MSL are ideally positioned to manufacture and supply a number of these, they will also rely on key supply chain partners to provide other components, such as the vacuum systems, optical interfaces etc.; thereby creating opportunities and benefits for numerous technology supply chain companies. Furthermore, the scientific challenges and knowledge addressed during the project will create opportunities for supply chain partners to develop their own unique technologies, support differentiation, competitiveness and new business growth. The main output of the project will be a robust, miniaturised, low power and low cost optical lattice clock; representing a core sub-system component to numerous quantum technology systems, such as gravity sensors, magnetic
sensors etc.; which in turn become core components of platform systems such as: navigation systems, geo-physic sensors for gravity mapping etc. Successful delivery of the project results thereby demonstrates the potential to benefit numerous sensor / system integrators.

Quantum technology has the potential to demonstrate performance gains for a wide range of applications, such as defence (navigation, tunnel detection, battlefield imaging), geophysics (oil prospecting, void / feature detection, utility mapping), civil engineering (infrastructure mapping) etc. In the long term such systems will deliver highly disruptive solutions that: i) lead to the creation of new markets; ii) satisfy currently un-met user needs; or iii) achieve performance gains far beyond existing solutions. A particular focus of the project will be optical lattice clocks for space applications. The consortium will engage with potential European and International end-users to: i) inform them about the features of quantum optical clocks; ii) to explore potential end-use applications; and iii) to define a roadmap for take up and use. Early applications are anticipated for navigation and GPS replacement (reduced reliance).

Benefits to Society:
Quantum technology is a disruptive technology with the potential to create new markets and business growth, leading to UK employment, economic growth and wealth creation. The project represents an important step towards the development of a key component / platform technology that will enable the realisation of these benefits / impacts. The target final application for the project results are optical lattice clocks. Such atomic clocks demonstrate a wide range of benefits for society including: reduced dependence on GPS (a major risk and concern for society); and enhanced navigation leading to more efficient transport systems; to name but a few. Such benefits / impacts align with numerous National policy priorities, such as security, smart cities and transport etc.


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