April 13, 2024

Revealing the thorium nuclear clock and its time-warping secrets

An international research team is advancing precision timekeeping through the development of a nuclear clock using thorium isotopes and innovative laser methods, potentially transforming our understanding of physical constants and dark matter. (Artist’s concept.) Credit: SciTechDaily.com

A new, more accurate way of measuring time is the aim of an international research project in which Würzburg physicist Adriana Pálffy-Buß is involved. The results could also help in the search for dark matter.

The global navigation system Thorium Nuclear Clock

The jump of a thorium nucleus from the excited state to the ground state is the starting point of a new type of clock that research teams from Würzburg and Vienna intend to develop. Credit: Oselote / iStockphoto (Atomkern) /KI Hintergrund), Edited

Increasing the measurement accuracy of physical methods

“Researchers led by Oliver Heckl at the University of Vienna want to increase measurement Laser pulse rotating corkscrew

Laser pulses in the shape of a rotating corkscrew are intended to bring the thorium nuclei to the desired excited state. Credit: Tobias Kirschbaum

Rotating corkscrews as a solution

Another problem: so far there is no laser with the necessary precision to trigger the desired effect. The Austro-German research team therefore relies on the aforementioned “innovative method that uses light with orbital angular momentum”. This is also known as twisted light or vortex beams.

In very simplified terms, the laser pulses do not hit the thorium atoms as an “energy wall” in this method. Instead, they resemble a kind of rotating corkscrew and are therefore more likely to place atomic nuclei in the desired excited state.

Theoretical calculations for the ideal scenario

As an expert in theoretical physics, Adriana Pálffy-Buß will mainly support the research project with her calculations. “I design and simulate what would happen in different experimental setups and propose what would work best”, summarizes the physicist. Among countless approaches, she tries to identify the most promising scenario. For this, she receives around 375 thousand euros from the special research area financing fund – enough to finance two doctoral positions.

For physicists, this research project is super exciting, says Pálffy-Buß. “A nuclear clock would make it possible to investigate concepts that are normally taken for granted, such as the question of whether fundamental physical constants are really constant.” It could also help answer the question of what dark matter is made of. “Due to the fundamental interactions that play a role in nuclear transitions, the nuclear clock is in a unique position to answer such questions”, concludes the physicist.

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