NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Have you ever wondered how the GPS in your phone or your car and pinpoint your location with such accuracy?  

It’s a matter of time atomic time, to be precise. The triangulation of satellites, ground towers, and your device is made possible by the use of atomic clocks. Atomic clocks work in a similar method as a pendulum or quartz clocks:  the oscillation of the time-keeper is kept in line with an exterior “kick”, which ensures friction keeps the slowing of the pendulum to a minimum.  However, the atomic clock’s “kick” is done using quantum mechanics, and incredibly fast cycles -9.2 billion cycles a second to keep incredibly accurate time. 

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The technology was developed in the 1940s, and made its way into wide commercial use in 2011, thanks to decades of work at Sandia National Labs.  Now, the labs are on a mission to shrink the existing models to make the world’s smallest atomic clock.  Once the goal is achieved, the clock will be about the size of a grain of rice.  

Atomic physicist Yuan-Yu Jau and his team are re-imagining exactly how the clocks work to reduce the footprint.  The current model, which as been the industry standard for more than a decade, is about the size of a 30-stick matchbook.  By stacking components and using hair-thin lasers to monitor the atomic pendulum, they’re able to greatly reduce the footprint of the timepiece.  

Why is this important?

Well, your smartphone and car don’t actually have the clocks built into the hardware.  They’re reliant on atomic clocks built into cell towers and satellites.  It works fine, as long as there isn’t any inclement weather, deep-ground tunnels, or situations where the signal could be blocked.  With the addition of the clocks into personal effects, it could greatly improve navigation, data sharing, and GPS for civilian and military needs.  

Jau says, however, that they’re still about 5 years away from the new atomic clocks going online in mass production.  Until then, they continue to develop the quantum technology in the race to make information more precise and the tools for troops in combat more effective.