Molecular clock chip to boost smartphone navigation accuracy

July 19, 2018 // By Rich Pell
Researchers at MIT (Cambridge, MA) have developed the first molecular clock on a chip – which keeps time using the constant rotation of molecules as a timing reference – and which, they say, could be a low-power, low-cost alternative to atomic clocks.

Unlike atomic clocks, which rely on the steady resonance of atoms when exposed to a specific frequency, the new chip uses the constant, measurable rotation of molecules — not atoms – when exposed to a certain frequency of electromagnetic radiation to keep time. Such a device, say the researchers, offers the potential of significantly improving the accuracy and performance of navigation on smartphones and other consumer devices.

Today's electronics use much less accurate internal clocks that rely on the "trilateration" of time signals broadcast from GPS satellites to navigate. Errors can be reduced with corrections from additional satellite signals – if available – but at the expense of performance and speed. When signals drop or weaken, a phone primarily relies on its internal clock and an accelerometer to estimate its location and for local navigation.

The on-chip clock developed by the researchers exposes specific molecules to an exact, ultra-high-frequency that causes them to spin at a rate reliably constant enough that it can serve as a precise timing reference. When the molecular rotations cause maximum energy absorption, a periodic output is clocked — in this case, a second.

In experiments, the molecular clock averaged an error of under one microsecond per hour - comparable to miniature atomic clocks and 10,000 times more stable than the crystal oscillator clocks typically used in smartphones. Because the clock is fully electronic and doesn't require the bulky, power-hungry components used to insulate and excite the atoms in atomic clocks, it is manufactured with standard low-cost, CMOS integrated circuit technology.

The chip consumes only 66 milliwatts. In comparison, many common smartphone features — such as GPS, Wi-Fi, and LED lighting — can consume hundreds of milliwatts during use.


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