TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The University of Alabama has partnered with the United States Naval Observatory to train UA students in precise timing and time interval technology, which is used in highly precise atomic clocks on which the U.S. military, financial sector, GPS satellites and power grids rely.
The partnership, which will involve an interdisciplinary program, drawing on resources from both UA’s College and Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering, positions UA to become one of the few universities in the world training students in the field.
“We’re looking forward to helping the precise time community get qualified graduates that can make positive contributions right from the start,” said Dr. Paul Koppang, director of the USNO Clock Operations Division. “Right now, basically, people are trained on the job when they get there. Another thing this will do is also provide awareness to students that this is a possible career path for them.”
Through the partnership, the U.S. Naval Observatory will assist UA in developing curriculum related to precise timing; send staff to UA to present guest lectures and seminars; loan or donate equipment to UA; offer tours and demonstrations of its facilities; and provide academic and career advice to students.
UA will develop curriculum to begin training students for future careers in precise timing and will create teaching and research labs with the equipment provided by the USNO. Already, UA’s department of physics and astronomy has developed, and is seeking approval of, concentrations in precision timing for their masters and doctoral degrees.
“What’s interesting about this technology is the public doesn’t really know that it exists,” said Dr. Andrew Lemmon, a UA assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “But if it stopped working—if atomic clocks that use this technology ceased to operate—everyone would very quickly know about it because things like online financial transactions, GPS and the power grid would be severely disrupted.”
But not only are atomic clocks and precise-timing technology important to modern life; they are also used to provide timing for U.S. military installations worldwide. Yet over the last two decades, the number of U.S. experts in precise timing have dwindled.
“Nearly all sectors of our economy rely on this silent infrastructure working perfectly in the background of our daily activities, yet the number of experts in the field supporting those activities, and our economy with it, number only a few dozen nationwide,” said Dr. Adam Hauser, a UA assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy.
One type of atomic clock used by the U.S. Department of Defense, called a hydrogen maser, uses the properties of hydrogen atoms to provide a timing reference that is approximately a billion times more stable than time provided by traditional mechanical clocks.
Hydrogen masers are made in only one place in the United States, Tuscaloosa, which is how UA faculty got involved. Through a collaborative research program with Microsemi, the company that makes hydrogen masers, Lemmon was able to visit the USNO and learned about their concerns of a dwindling talent pool. Several conversations later, the partnership was born.
“We are excited to offer our students the opportunity to receive training in this crucial and growing field,” Lemmon said.