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Reassessing Time and Space – How Thorium is Set to Play a Role



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Time and Space

The concept of time and space has always amused scientists. Everything we see around us works within a temporal and spatial framework. Albert Einstein famously said, “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space.” 

However, our assessments of time and space have kept evolving with advances achieved in science and our philosophical understanding of it. 

One of the latest additions to this evolutionary flow, something that could be game-changing or revolutionary, comes from the inputs of a research team led by Prof. Thorsten Schumm from TU Wien (Vienna). The anticipation is that this research could pave the way for revolutionary high-precision technologies, including nuclear clocks. 

Atomic Nucleus Excited with Laser: The Curious Case of Thorium Transition

The scientific community has long been attempting to achieve a very specific state of thorium atomic nuclei that would help build nuclear clocks that are more prescient in their measurement of time than the best available atomic clocks today. 

On a greater level, such minute time measurements would help reevaluate the core propositions of theoretical physics, including the question regarding the constants of nature: Are these constants sacrosanct, or do they change in space and time? 

To measure time so accurately would have required knowing the exact energy to excite Thorium to the point of its atomic transition. Courtesy of the research we're discussing, that energy is now known to its exact levels. Therefore, for the first time, it is now possible to transfer an atomic nucleus into a higher state of energy through a laser and then track its return back to its original state. 

This phenomenon is also a pioneering achievement in that it is the first time that two distinct areas of physics—quantum physics and nuclear physics — could be combined into one. The research required developing special thorium-containing crystals. 

Since the 1970s, scientists have been aware of the possibility of a special atomic nucleus that could be manipulated with a laser. However, achieving success requires knowing the energy of the transition with extreme precision. According to Prof. Thorsten Schumm:

“Knowing the energy of this transition to within one electron volt is of little use if you have to hit the right energy with a precision of one-millionth of an electron volt to detect the transition.” 

To succeed in this mission, which sounded almost impossible at the time, the team developed crystals incorporating a large number of thorium atoms. 

Fabian Schaden, the researcher responsible for designing these crystals in Vienna, had the following to say to explain the complexities involved:

 “Although this is technically quite complex, it has the advantage that we can not only study individual thorium nuclei in this way but can hit approximately ten to the power of seventeen thorium nuclei simultaneously with the laser – about a million times more than there are stars in our galaxy.” 

The presence of a large number of thorium nuclei amplified the effect, reducing the required measurement time and increasing the chance of actually finding the energy transition. 

How important was this breakthrough? According to Thorsten Schumm:

“For us, this is a dream coming true.” He further went on to say, “We are delighted that we are now the ones who can present the crucial breakthrough: The first targeted laser excitation of an atomic nucleus.” 

Click here for the list of the five best nuclear stocks to invest in.

The Impact of Success on the Concepts of Time and Space

The success achieved in this research would lead to more sophisticated precision instruments. The clocks will use the oscillation of the light that activates the thorium transition to turn into new variants that could be more precise than the best atomic clocks available today. 

The phenomenon might also help analyze the earth's gravitational fields more precisely, which could help locate mineral resources and indicate the imminence of earthquakes with increased precision. 

The researchers are not yet sure of the entire spectrum of application possibilities, but they are sure that the potential could be limitless. In Thorsten Schumm’s words:

“Our measuring method is just the beginning. We cannot yet predict what results we will achieve with it. It will certainly be very exciting.”

This research could greatly benefit businesses that develop sophisticated precision clocks. Below are a couple of such companies. 

#1. Microsemi

Microsemi is known globally for its atomic clock capabilities. These are clocks whose electrical oscillator is regulated by the natural vibration frequencies of an atomic system, which could be Caesium atom beams, ammonia atoms, or rubidium. 

Microsemi's atomic clocks are known for offering more than 90% of the input to Universal Coordinated Time (UTC). It is also the world's only commercial provider of Caesium beam-tube clocks, which can be found in national labs around the world.

The firm positions itself as the leading provider of gas-cell atomic clocks, including the Chip Scale Atomic Clock (CSAC), the world's smallest and lowest-power atomic clock, and the Miniature Atomic Clock (MAC).

Microsemi says that its Caesium atomic clocks are especially useful in communication. These clocks can very efficiently back up GNSS/GPS technology for frequency, time, and phase applications. 

Caesium performs at an offset from UTC at 1×10-12 accuracy. It makes a Caesium clock capable of backing up GNSS/GPS with no degradation in performance for frequency applications. It enables the holdover mode of operation for time and phase applications. 

However, with the success of ‘thorium transition' research, Microsemi now has the resources to develop a more accurate and fine-tuned clock. 

finviz dynamic chart for  MCHP

Overall, Microsemi Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of Microchip Technology Inc. (Nasdaq: MCHP). In fiscal year 2023, Microchip registered net sales of more than US$8.4 billion. In FY 2023, the company returned $1.64 billion to its stockholders compared to $0.9 billion that it returned in fiscal 2022.

#2. General Atomics

In October 2021, General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) declared that it had completed NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Deep Space Atomic mission. According to the president of GA-EMS, Scott Forney:

“The success of the DSAC mission on board the OTB paves the way for future efforts to advance critical space-based technologies and get them on orbit with reliable, robust satellite designs.”

The DSAC was a miniaturized, supernormally precise mercury-ion atomic clock. According to General Atomics' assessment, it demonstrated significantly improved timing stability over other atomic clocks in operation on GPS satellites. It could measure time consistently over long periods and support deep space navigation and exploration. 

Understandably, General Atomics is a company that would benefit significantly from the ‘Thorium Transition' research. 

At its core, General Atomics is a defense and diversified technologies company. In 2023, the company earned a revenue of US$3.1 billion

While the Nuclear clock is about walking towards more precision, scientists have kept developing solutions that have given birth to a new generation of atomic clocks. In one such experiment at the European XFEL X-ray laser, the researchers leveraged the element Scandium. 

A Highly Precise Atomic Clock: Leveraging Scandium for Extremely High Standards of Accuracy

The researchers leveraged Scandium to arrive at an accuracy of one second in 300 billion years, which is a thousand times more precise than the current standards of atomic clocks based on caesium.

Much like the transition of Thorium that we discussed in the beginning, the researchers at the European XFEL could excite a promising transition in the nucleus of Scandium. Scandium is readily available as a high-purity metal foil or as the compound scandium dioxide. The required energy to accurately excite it for the said purpose required X-rays with an energy of 12.4 kilo electron volts (keV), about 10,000 times the energy of visible light. 

It has a width of only 1.4 femto-electron volts (eV) and 1.4 quadrillionths of an electron volt, which is only about one-tenth of a trillionth of the excitation energy (10-19). It helped reach an accuracy of 1:10,000,000,000,000, equivalent to one second in 300 billion years.

While explaining the potential benefits of this research and its success, the researchers could point out many things. For instance, atomic clocks with improved accuracy could help satellites to be positioned more precisely. The researchers also highlighted the potential of the atomic clock as a road-opener for nuclear clocks of the future. 

According to the experiment's project leader, Yuri Shvyd'ko of Argonne National Laboratory in the United States:

“The breakthrough in resonant excitation of scandium and the precise measurement of its energy opens new avenues not only for nuclear clocks but also for ultrahigh-precision spectroscopy and precision measurement of fundamental physical effects.”

Elaborating on the potential that this research had, Olga Kocharovskaya of Texas A&M University in the US, initiator, and leader of the project, had the following to say:

“For example, such a high accuracy could allow gravitational time dilation to be probed at sub-millimeter distances. This would allow studies of relativistic effects on length scales that were inaccessible so far.” 

Summarily, this innovation, much like the one we read about the thorium transition, had several benefits. At one level, these benefits meant directly applying the phenomenon to devising new solutions. On another level, the benefits were in the form of new horizons opened up. In the area of theoretical physics, these newly opened avenues would result in more efficient solutions. 

The Precision Clock that Leveraged Strontium

We have already looked into how Thorium and scandium have been used to reassess time and space to the minutest extent possible. In 2022, researchers explored the potential of Strontium in this regard. 

The research included a group of US scientists. They claimed to have built a device that was 50 times more precise than its atomic clock peers. 

According to Jun Ye, affiliated with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado Boulder, apart from its precision features, the clock could introduce discoveries in quantum mechanics and paradigms that guide the dynamics of the subatomic world. 

The solution successfully explored the webs of light, known as optical lattices. These lattices could trap atoms in an orderly fashion and stop the atoms from gravity-induced falling or movements that result in a loss of accuracy. The precision clock comprised 100,000 strontium atoms. Each is layered on the other in a pancake-like fashion to form a height of approximately 1 millimeter. 

While explaining the fascinating features of the clock, Ye said: 

“Space and time are connected. And with time measurement so precise, you can see how space is changing in real-time—Earth is a lively, living body.”

Like other clocks we have discussed so far, Ye was excited by this clock's potential to usher in a completely new era of physics. The clock could detect time differences across 200 microns. Brought down to 20 microns, it could more efficiently examine the inner dynamics of the quantum world. 

Reassessing Time and Space with Thorium and More: Concluding Words

Apart from opening up new dimensions about the temporal and spatial nature of our universe, these super precision clocks serve many, many purposes, including improving our telecommunication and navigation systems. 

According to Andrew Ludlow, a physicist from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado:

“There's a lot of applications [for clocks] that only need really good stability, and then there is a range of applications where just stability is not enough, and you also need accuracy.”

These super-sensitive devices can gauge every tiny ripple through space-time. They can detect gravitational waves at frequencies that are almost inaccessible to our conventional solutions. A high-performance space-time measuring device can sense the smallest of gravitational changes happening deep underground to indicate signal conditions that are precursors to an earthquake or volcanic eruption. 

Summarily, the possibilities are limitless, and scientists may discover more elements like Thorium, scandium, and strontium in the days to come that will revolutionize the way we see space and time. 

Click here to learn if warp drive is fiction or the future.

Gaurav started trading cryptocurrencies in 2017 and has fallen in love with the crypto space ever since. His interest in everything crypto turned him into a writer specializing in cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Soon he found himself working with crypto companies and media outlets. He is also a big-time Batman fan.