The Most Stable Laser in the World will Help Develop Optical Clocks

ultra stable laserBoasting frequency variation of no more than 2 parts in 10,000 trillion, the title of world’s most stable laser belongs to on developed and tested by scientists at The National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado and at Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt in Germany.

Reported in Nature Photonics, it uses a whole new methodology for constructing high-quality optical cavities, one that will bring more than an order of magnitude improvement over previous designs. It will speed up progress in development of optical clocks, which operate at frequencies more than 10,000 times higher than the approximately 9.2 GHz microwaves used as the basis of the current worldwide time standard.

Into the bargain, the unique laser design is expected to bring a new level of precision to research in gravitational wave detection on Earth and space, as well as accurate tests of relativity as well as fundamental physics research in cavity quantum electrodynamics and quantum optomechanics.

Long Atomic Coherence Times

“The previous stability limit of about 2 X 10-16 was good,” says Jun Ye, study co-author. “But it prevented us from exploring the full potential of modern optical atomic clocks where the atomic coherence time can be exceedingly long. The potential of pushing the laser stability better by an order of magnitude will allow us to realize atomic clocks that have unprecedented stability approaching 1 x 10-17 over 1 second.”

“It will also have a dramatic impact on large-scale precision measurement instruments such as space-borne optical interferometers for gravitational-wave detection with baselines of many thousands of kilometers. And it may be of intense interest to the communications industry, since our system was tested at a familiar telecomm wavelength of 1.5 micrometers.” (The wavelength with the lowest loss in fiber-optic networks.)

Frequency Stability

Cutaway View of Ultra Stable LaserUltra-stable laser research usually uses some form of optical-cavity interferometer, comprising a spacer with mirrors at each end. That design severely limits the range of optical frequency which can resonate in the cavity. By superimposing the cavity output beam on another highly controlled reference beam, the interference effects, which are periodic reinforcement beats, can reveal stability with superb sensitivity. Such systems, however, have historically been subject to thermal fluctuations that alter the cavity dimensions, therefore reducing frequency stability.

“We addressed that problem in several ways,” says Ye. “By far the most significant factor was our decision to substitute single-crystal silicon for the ultralow expansion glass (ULE) or fused silica customarily employed in the cavity mirrors and spacers.”

Single-crystal silicon has a thermal expansion coefficient that approaches zero at 124 K, “so an all-silicon interferometer can be made insensitive to temperature fluctuations” at that point, as the Nature Photonics report states.

Additionally, at 124 K the crystal has a much lower mechanical loss compared to conventional optical glass, and a much higher Young’s modulus. Both mechanical properties combine to minimize the fundamental thermal fluctuations. The group used extensive computer modeling to create a design that reduced the effects of environmental vibrations on the 21 cm long resonator, which they mounted in a vertical configuration after testing its response to external forces in all three dimensions.

Liquid Nitrogen Cryostat

Lastly, the German researchers created a simple yet novel cryostat design that employs evaporated liquid nitrogen gas for the coolant. The gas flows through superinsulated vacuum tubes to an outer heat shield, and careful control of the flow limits temperature deviations in the system to about 1 mK from the 124 K target.

The new all-silicon unit was tested for 24 hours against two of the best-performing conventional ULE-based optical cavity-stabilized lasers – one from JILA and one from PTB, with thermal noise variation in the range of 6 X 10-16 and 2 X 10-16 respectively. The results, Ye says, “show that the all-silicon system surpasses the performance of any other optical cavities ever reported.” As a long-term stable frequency reference, a preliminary test has shown that it is equivalent to the stability of a hydrogen maser at time intervals up to 1,000 seconds.

The team is now working to improve those figures. Among other revisions, they will try to restrain noise from the cryostat, reduce feedback errors due to unauthentic amplitude modulation, and experiment with different optical coatings on the silicon mirrors. The very thin optical coatings now remain the only significant contribution to the thermal noise of the cavity and new approaches are already being investigated jointly with Markus Aspelmeyer’s group at the University of Vienna.

Many critical experiments in atomic physics require lasers with extremely narrow linewidth and extremely stable output to interrogate clusters of ultracold atoms or single trapped ions. “Stable lasers such as the one reported are already unlocking some of the mysteries of minute atomic interactions that are otherwise hidden,” Ye says.


A sub-40-mHz-linewidth laser based on a silicon single-crystal optical cavity
T. Kessler, C. Hagemann, C. Grebing, T. Legero, U. Sterr, F. Riehle, M. J. Martin, L. Chen & J. Ye

Nature Photonics (2012) doi:10.1038/nphoton.2012.217

Credit for Cutaway image of the device interior: Thomas Kessler