We normally think of atomic clocks as the gold standard in timekeeping. The very definition of a second — in modern times, at least — is 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of a stationary cesium-133 atom at a temperature of 0K. But there is a move to replace that definition using optical clocks that are 100 times more accurate than a standard atomic clock.
In recent news, the Boulder Atomic Clock Optical Network — otherwise known as BACON — compared times from three optical clocks and found that the times differed a little more than they had predicted, but the clocks were still amazingly accurate relative to each other. Some of the links used optical fibers, a method used before. But there were also links carried by lasers aimed from one facility to another. The lasers, however didn’t work during a snowstorm, but when they did work the results were comparable to the optical fiber method.
For those of us who like to wrangle electrons from time to time, there are some exceptional deals out there for low (or at least lower) cost imported test equipment. If you’re willing to part with a few hundred dollars US, you can get some serious hardware that a decade ago would have been effectively outside the reach of the hobbyist. Right now you can order a four channel oscilloscope for less than what a new Xbox costs; but which one you’ll rack up more hours staring at slack-jawed is up to you.
Of course, these “cheap” pieces of equipment aren’t always perfect. [Paul Lutus] was pretty happy with his relatively affordable Siglent SDG 1025 Arbitrary Function Generator, but found its accuracy to be a bit lacking. Fortunately, the function generator accepts an external clock which can be used to increase its accuracy, so he decided to build one.
[Paul] starts off by going over the different options he considered for this project, essentially boiling down to whether or not he wanted to jump through the extra hoops required for an oven-controlled crystal oscillator (OCXO). But the decision was effectively made for him when his first attempt at using a more simplistic temperature controlled oscillator failed due to an unfortunate misjudgment in terms of package size.
In the end, he decided to spring for the OCXO, and was able to use the USB port on the front panel of the SDG 1025 to provide the power necessary for the crystal to warm up and remain at operating temperature. After he got the oscillator powered, he just needed to put it in a suitable metal enclosure (to cut down external interference) and calibrate it. [Paul] cleverly used the NIST WWV broadcast and his ears to find when his frequency standard overlapped that of the source, therefore verifying it was at 10 MHz.
Do you remember your first instrument, the first device you used to measure something? Perhaps it was a ruler at primary school, and you were taught to see distance in terms of centimetres or inches. Before too long you learned that these units are only useful for the roughest of jobs, and graduated to millimetres, or sixteenths of an inch. Eventually as you grew older you would have been introduced to the Vernier caliper and the micrometer screw gauge, and suddenly fractions of a millimetre, or thousandths of an inch became your currency. There is a seduction to measurement, something that draws you in until it becomes an obsession.
Every field has its obsessives, and maybe there are bakers seeking the perfect cup of flour somewhere out there, but those in our community will probably focus on quantities like time and frequency. You will know them by their benches surrounded by frequency standards and atomic clocks, and their constant talk of parts per billion, and of calibration. I can speak with authority on this matter, for I used to be one of them in a small way; I am a reformed frequency standard nut. Continue reading “Confessions Of A Reformed Frequency Standard Nut”→
Accurate timing is one of the most basic requirements for so much of the technology we take for granted, yet how many of us pause to consider the component that enables us to have it? The quartz crystal is our go-to standard when we need an affordable, known, and stable clock frequency for our microprocessors and other digital circuits. Perhaps it’s time we took a closer look at it.
The first electronic oscillators at radio frequencies relied on the electrical properties of tuned circuits featuring inductors and capacitors to keep them on-frequency. Tuned circuits are cheap and easy to produce, however their frequency stability is extremely affected by external factors such as temperature and vibration. Thus an RF oscillator using a tuned circuit can drift by many kHz over the period of its operation, and its timing can not be relied upon. Long before accurate timing was needed for computers, the radio transmitters of the 1920s and 1930s needed to stay on frequency, and considerable effort had to be maintained to keep a tuned-circuit transmitter on-target. The quartz crystal was waiting to swoop in and save us this effort.
[Paulie] over on the EEVBlog forums picked up an inexpensive frequency counter on eBay and realized it was just a little bit off. As a result, he decided to build a frequency standard. His build wound up costing him about $3 and he shared the design and the software for it.
The hardware design is very simple: a TCXO (also from eBay), an ATMega8, a pushbutton, and a AA battery with DC to DC converter to power the whole thing. The software does all the work, providing frequencies from 10MHz down to a few hundred hertz (including some common audio test frequencies).
If you haven’t worked with a TCXO before, it is a crystal oscillator that includes a temperature compensation circuit to pull the crystal frequency up or down depending on temperature. Although crystal oscillators are pretty accurate already, adding this temperature compensation improves accuracy over the design temperature dramatically (typically, 10 to 40 times better than a naked crystal oscillator). If you want to learn more about TCXOs, here’s a good write-up.
A TCXO isn’t as good as an OCXO (where the first O stands for Oven). However, OCXOs cost more, are larger, and drain batteries (after all, it is running an oven). You can even hack your own OCXO, but it is going to cost more than $3.
If you want to see the real guts of one TCXO, check out the video.
A rubidium standard, or rubidium atomic clock, is a high accuracy frequency and time standard, usually accurate to within a few parts in 1011. This is still several orders of magnitude less than some of the more accurate standards – for example the NIST-F1 has an uncertainty of 5×10-16 (It is expected to neither gain nor lose a second in nearly 100 million years) and the more recent NIST-F2 has an uncertainty of 1×10-16 (It is expected to neither gain nor lose a second in nearly 300 million years). But the Rb standard is comparatively inexpensive, compact, and widely used in TV stations, Mobile phone base stations and GPS systems and is considered as a secondary standard.
The obvious way of checking would be to use another source with a higher accuracy, such as a caesium clock and do a phase comparison. Since that was not possible, he decided to use NIST’s time/frequency service, broadcasting on 60 kHz – WWVB. He did this because almost 30 years ago, he had built a receiver for WWVB which had since been running continuously in a corner of his shop, with only a minor adjustment since it was built.
His idea was to count and accumulate the phase ‘slips’ generated by comparing the output of the WWVB receiver with the output of the Rb standard using a digital phase comparator. The accuracy of the standard would be calculated as the derivative of N (number of slips) over time. The circuit is a quadrature mixer: it subtracts the frequency of one input from the other and outputs the difference frequency. The phase information is conveyed in the duty cycle of the pulses coming from the two phase comparators. The pulses are integrated and converted to digital logic level by low-pass filter/Schmitt trigger circuits. The quadrature-phased outputs are connected to the stepper motor driver which converts logic level inputs to bi-directional currents in the motor windings. The logic circuit is bread-boarded and along with the motor driver, housed in a computer hard drive enclosure which already had the power supply available.