It is known that low-cost commercial Rb atomic clocks are fairly simple in construction: gas cell is probed by a light source and excited by RF around 6.8Ghz. When frequency is right - we see decrease of the photodiode signal.

But if we look at Cs and H clocks - they are not using this principle, but instead have fountains/masers, complicated mechanisms for selection of right states... Why Cs/H clocks can't use same simple design with RF excitation of gas cell and probing with light source?

Same for Iodine - it has huge number of lines in visible and NIR spectrum which are easy to probe at low cost. Aren't there any that can react to RF excitation <12Ghz and can be used as a time source?

  • $\begingroup$ physics.stackexchange.com/q/191871/123208 has some info on the benefits of caesium over rubidium. Also see HP 5062C Cesium Beam Frequency Reference. $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Oct 30, 2022 at 1:18
  • $\begingroup$ @PM2Ring Yes, this is more or less clear. But design of Cs clock is much more complicated, it does not use optical probe. That is the question - I really like simplicity of Rb clock, and trying to understand why Cs/H clock need to be complicated, and Iodine clocks are done in optical domain only, where it is even more complicated. $\endgroup$ Oct 30, 2022 at 2:32

1 Answer 1


According to Rubidium Frequency Standard Primer,

Before the availability of spectroscopic lasers, rubidium was the atom of choice for gas cell devices because of its unique ability to use isotopic hyperfine filtering of the pumping light from a Rb lamp.

The efficiency of the optical pumping process is enhanced by a fortuitous overlap between the optical absorption lines of the two naturally-occurring isotopes, 85Rb and 87Rb. This is the main reason that rubidium is used in most (non-laser pumped) gas cell atomic frequency standards. Rubidium is unique in that the 85Rb isotope can serve as a hyperfine filter to remove one of the hyperfine components from the light emitted by an 87Rb spectral lamp as shown in Figure 6.

In this cartoon figure (see Figure 7 for real spectra), the top plot shows the two hyperfine components in the optical spectrum of one of the 87Rb D-lines. Because both hyperfine components are present at equal intensities, this light would be ineffective for the purpose of optical pumping. The middle plot shows the absorption spectrum of 85Rb gas. Notice that the “a” and “A” components overlap while the “b” and “B” components do not. If the 87Rb lamp spectrum is passed through the 85Rb filter cell, the resulting filtered spectrum is shown in the bottom plot. The desired “b” component is now significantly larger than the “a” component, making the filtered spectrum more effective as an optical pumping source for an 87Rb absorption cell. The filter cell can be separate or integrated with the absorption (resonance) cell by using natural Rb with both isotopes.


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