Small but powerful

The new chip-scale devices at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder are as small as a grain of rice and almost as accurate as physics will allow.    

Sure, NIST has always had cool toys. In fact, the NIST-F1 Cesium Fountain Atomic Clock keeps the official time and frequency standard for the United States. But the chip-scale devices team in NIST’s Atomic Devices and Instrumentation Group aims to take the devices created at the laboratory and miniaturize them for use in a wider range of applications.

“NIST has a lot of great programs whose mission is to produce those instruments,” said John Kitching, who along with Svenja Knappe and Elizabeth Donley, received a Governor’s Award for High-Impact Research earlier this year.

“This group is focused on taking these instruments and trying to make them small, low-power and low-cost. The idea is to see if we can produce an atomic clock small enough to be on board a cellphone or a GPS receiver.”

The team uses very high technology — lithographic processing, chemical etching and micromachining all come into play — to create remarkable devices like their chip-scale atomic clock, first demonstrated in 1994, and a chip-scale magnetometer, created soon after. In fact, the team’s atomic clock is already actively being manufactured and sold by the California-based company Symmetricom Inc., which has an office in Boulder.

“We’re focused on the innovative, high-risk component of the research,” Kitching explained. “We want to show the feasibility, show the world that they work. Then we try to work with companies to transfer the technology so they can adopt it and manufacture it.”

Applications for such low-cost, high-accuracy devices are voluminous. Atomic clocks could be used to create instantaneous synchronization of military communications networks or GPS positioning systems that are virtually impossible to jam. Chip-scale atomic magnetometers can also be used for a wide variety of applications, ranging from nuclear magnetic resonance in the biosciences or medical fields to oil exploration to weapons detection.

Thomas O’Brien, chief of the Time and Frequency Division, said that the work of the ADI Group sent shockwaves throughout the NIST labs nationwide.

“Their attitude has fostered a whole new program across NIST that we call ‘NIST-on-a-Chip,’” O’Brien explained. “We’re basically saying that if you can measure time or frequency in a magnetic field at this scale, what other qualities could we measure with similar technologies?

“It turns out that just about any of the qualities we measure—electrical qualities, like voltage and current, as well as mass, force, motion, and power of light — can be measured using similar technologies. It looks like there is some very good potential for measuring other qualities with devices that can be mass-produced, use very low power, and can be deployed almost anywhere.”

For his part, Kitching points to teamwork and collaboration as keys to his group’s success, mentioning the recent op-ed by physicist Sean Carroll in The New York Times titled No Physicist is an Island, about the recent Nobel Prize in physics awarded to scientists investigating the Higgs boson particle.

“These days, science is done collaboratively,” Kitching affirmed. “Not only do I have a fantastic team of people here to do this work, but we have also benefited enormously from our collaborations with other organizations. It takes a lot of different people not only to do things efficiently, but to do new things in new ways. New things are often a convergence of several different ideas.”

He also pointed to the public-private partnership between NIST, a civilian agency of the United States government, and the private sector.

“As a government organization, we have freedoms here to try things that are high-risk without answering to investors or people who want to generate profit very quickly,” he said. “At the same time, we can’t commercialize this technology ourselves, so the role that each side plays is critical. When Symmetricom commercially released their chip-scale atomic clock, it was an example of something that we worked on making it in the real world, which is tremendously exciting.”

In addition to the Governor’s Award, the team was recently honored with the 2014 Rank Prize, a British award they will receive at a ceremony in London in February.

“It’s wonderful to get these types of recognition because it enforces the idea that what we do here at NIST makes real impact,” O’Brien said. “Dr. Kitching and his team are not out there collecting awards for the sake of having them. It’s a result of the fact that people across the globe and across multiple disciplines and industries are recognizing that these are important technological breakthroughs that have the potential to really change things in the future. It’s a sign that we’re heading in the right direction.”