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ERC Synergy Grant: The way to the worlds best clock

A lucrative ERC Synergy Grant is being used to fund the "Thorium Nuclear Clock" project, led by Thorsten Schumm at TU Wien.

Portrait of Thorsten Schumm

Thorsten Schumm

Download and use free of charge © TU Wien / Jaqueline Goldany

To develop a clock that measures with even greater precision than the best atomic clocks in the world - that is the ambitious goal towards which Professor Thorsten Schumm's team at the Institute of Atomic and Subatomic Physics at TU Wien has been working for many years together with research groups around the world. Whilst conventional atomic clocks rely on the physics of the atomic electron sheath, this new style of clock should use effects in the atomic nucleus. Important groundwork for this type of nuclear clock has been successfully completed in recent years, and now the research project is being backed by the European Research Council (ERC) in the form of an ERC Synergy Grant to the value of 13.8 million euros.

Thorsten Schumm will lead the "Thorium Nuclear Clock" project and work on implementing the nuclear clock concept with Ekkehard Peik (National Metrology Institute of Germany (PTB)), Marianna Safronova (University of Delaware, USA) and Peter Thirolf (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany). Other team members include Adriana Pàlffy-Buß (Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, Germany) and Johannes Weitenberg (Fraunhofer ILT in cooperation with the Fraunhofer Cluster of Excellence Advanced Photon Sources, Germany).

Thorium nucleus as a clock

The "clock" in the new nuclear clock will use atomic nuclei from the thorium 229 isotope, a synthetic and extremely rare material, that can be produced and processed at the Institute of Atomic and Subatomic Physics at TU Wien. The nuclear clock offers unique application opportunities, from improving the accuracy of satellite-based navigation systems to research into new types of physics beyond the limits of the current standard model.

The new ERC Synergy Project should get to the bottom of one question of fundamental importance for our understanding of the universe: we want to investigate whether the fundamental natural constants in physics are not in fact variable in space and time. This would provide us with interesting facts concerning the nature of "dark materials", which constitute a significant proportion of our universe.

ERC Synergy Grants

The European Research Council (ERC) awards Synergy Grants for the funding of two to four scientists at different locations. These grants therefore support projects that "result in progress beyond the limits of knowledge" through interdisciplinary cooperation. These grants can have a value of up to ten million euros over a period of six years. In the case of the "Thorium Nuclear Clock" project, the grant has a total value of 13.8 million euros; as an application has been made and approved for experimental large-scale equipment, 4 million euros will go to TU Wien.

This is not the first major award for Thorsten Schumm: in 2009, he received the START Award from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), in 2010, he received an ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council and he is also head of the international "nuClock" research project that has achieved significant success in recent years in the work towards the Thorium Nuclear Clock, which the new ERC project should now be able to progress.

More about the nuclock-Project:, opens an external URL in a new window


Prof. Thorsten Schumm
Atomic and Subatomic Physics
TU Wien
Stadionallee 2, 1020 Vienna
Phone: +43 1 58801 141896


Dr. Florian Aigner
PR und Marketing
TU Wien
Resselgasse 3, 1040 Vienna
Phone: +43 1 58801 41027