Molecular clock could make smartphone navigation more accurate

San Francisco: Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a molecular clock on a chip which could one day significantly improve the accuracy and performance of navigation on smartphones and other consumer devices.

To keep time, the molecular clock uses the constant, measurable rotation of molecules when exposed to a certain frequency of electromagnetic radiation, according to a study published in journal Nature Electronics.

The most accurate time-keepers today are atomic clocks, but they are large and expensive.

In experiments, the molecular clock averaged an error under one microsecond per hour, comparable to miniature atomic clocks and 10,000 times more stable than the crystal-oscillator clocks in smartphones, the study said.

“Our vision is, in the future, you don’t need to spend a big chunk of money getting atomic clocks in most equipment,” said study co-author Ruonan Han, Associate Professor at MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“Rather, you just have a little gas cell that you attached to the corner of a chip in a smartphone, and then the whole thing is running at atomic clock-grade accuracy,” Han said.

The researchers believe that the chip-scale molecular clock can also be used for more efficient time-keeping in operations that require location precision but involve little to no GPS signal, such as underwater sensing or battlefield applications.