The thorium isomer Th: review of status and perspectives after more than 50 years of research
Faculty of Physics, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Am Coulombwall 1, 85748, Garching, Germany
Accepted: 11 January 2024
Published online: 31 January 2024
Today’s most precise timekeeping is based on optical atomic clocks. However, those could potentially be outperformed by a nuclear clock, based on a nuclear transition instead of an atomic shell transition. Such a nuclear clock promises intriguing applications in applied as well as fundamental physics, ranging from geodesy and seismology to the investigation of possible time variations of fundamental constants and the search for dark matter. Only one nuclear state is known so far that could drive a nuclear clock: the “Thorium Isomer” Th, i.e., the isomeric first excited state of Th, representing the lowest nuclear excitation so far reported in the landscape of nuclear isotopes. Indirectly conjectured to exist already in 1976, decades of experimental efforts were dedicated to unambiguously identify this elusive nuclear state and to characterize its properties. However, for 40 years, these efforts remained inconclusive. The turning point was marked by the first direct detection of Th via its internal conversion decay branch in 2016. Since then, remarkable progress could be achieved in characterizing the properties and decay parameters. The half-life of the neutral isomer was determined, the hyperfine structure was measured via collinear laser spectroscopy, providing information on nuclear moments and the nuclear charge radius and also the excitation energy of the isomer could be directly determined with different techniques. In a recent experiment at CERN’s ISOLDE facility, the long-sought radiative decay of the Thorium isomer could be observed for the first time via implantation of (-decaying) Ac into a vacuum-ultraviolet (VUV) transparent crystal and subsequent fluorescence detection in a VUV spectrometer. Thus, the excitation energy of Th could be determined with unprecedented precision to 8.338(24) eV, corresponding to a wavelength of 148.71(42) nm. These achievements, together with ongoing laser developments for the required VUV wavelength, open the door toward a laser-driven control of the isomeric transition and thus to the development of an ultra-precise nuclear frequency standard.
© The Author(s) 2024
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