National Physical Laboratory

Big Science Big science

Measurement science faces some of its most exacting challenges in making measurements at the frontiers of science and technology to deliver society's most ambitious 'big science' projects.

Metrology will be essential to the successful delivery of the outcomes of large scale or high investment scientific R&D by providing measurement capabilities to monitor and design systems, and validate the results.

Explore NPL's progress towards meeting the challenge below:

Square Kilometre Array (SKA)

SKA at night

Exploring the universe will require access to highly-precise measurements.

Understanding the origin and evolution of the universe involves, by definition, measurements on the largest scale imaginable. These measurements nevertheless have to be undertaken with a precision, accuracy and stability traceable to SI metrology in order to support or disprove the many cosmological models that attempt to explain what we observe today. The more we can push these measurements beyond the capabilities of current instruments, the more we can facilitate development of new theories which attempt to fill in the voids in our current knowledge and understanding.

Developing this greater understanding impacts not only on the science of distant objects in the cosmos but also on fundamental physics concerning what we know - or think we know - about how the world works.

With this goal in mind, the Square Kilometre Array has been selected by an international consortium of countries to be the next 'Big Science' project. It will be the biggest radio telescope in the world by a considerable margin, with its thousands of sensitive collecting antennas spread over the radio-quiet deserts of South Africa and Australia. Collectively, they will comprise a total antenna receiving area of approximately one square kilometre.

With such a huge and widely dispersed collecting area, the SKA will enable observations and measurements of the distant universe to be made with unparalleled sensitivity and resolution.


  • Ensuring the several thousand individual telescopes on two continents can be synchronised to a high precision, SI traceable atomic clock timescale on a 24/7 basis.
  • Ensuring traceability of the SKA atomic timescale to UTC - the defined world timescale.
  • Maintaining stability and continuity of the SKA timescale 24/7 for a period of 10 years or more.

2020 themes:

Measurement at the frontiersSI traceable measurements will have to be made in some of the inhospitable areas of the planet - deep desert areas chosen for their radio silence.

Smart and interconnected measurementThousands of antennas, interconnected over thousands of kilometres, across two continents need to be synchronised by the distribution of SI traceable time signals from atomic clocks.

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Nanotechnologies for faster computers

Interferometer commissioning at the XMaS beam-line

Society's demand for ever faster computers cannot be met using today's technologies.

This is mainly due to the inefficiencies created by reducing the size of the millions of individual transistors and switches in every computer, which slows down the progress predicted by Moores law that the density of transistors in microchips would double every two years. Transistors are based on charge coupling processes and the search is on for new processes that can produce faster more efficient transistors. One such process is based on the strain control of electrical resistance through the coupling of tiny piezoelectric materials and piezoresistor materials that alter their conductivity in response to strain. These are increasingly seen as the future of transistors, replacing today's metal-oxide-semiconductors.

Piezoelectric coupling can modify conductivity in nanoscale devices to introduce a new paradigm in computing technology where electromechanical coupling replaces charge transport. Such an advance would overcome a decade of stagnation in semiconductor transistor performance which has seen computational processing power fail to increase by more than a few percent since 2003. This in turn would enable major increases in computing speed with associated reductions in size and power consumption, as well as accelerating the growth of the portable consumer electronics market. Major emerging industrial applications also include ultra-high speed and high-resolution printing, configurable chemical and optical sensors, and electromagnetic telecommunications devices.

Commercialisation of this technology is dependent on the development of new metrology techniques and best practices that give confidence in materials performance at the nanoscale. To deliver this critical 'piece of the jigsaw' NPL is joining other European experts in metrology, highly regarded instrument scientists, and global industry partners in a project called Nanostrain. The results from this project will be openly available to drive innovation in next generation electronics devices.


  • Highly accurate measurements of strain in materials at the nanoscale are being conducted by Europe's leading measurement scientists, on brand new state-of-the-art instrumentation developed and / or adapted especially for the project.
  • With a particular focus on a class of materials (piezoelectrics) that change their shape in response to electric voltages, the project aims to advance commercial opportunities arising from controlled strain in nano-scale piezoelectrics including the development of the first Piezoelectric-Effect-Transistor (PET).
  • As well as a body of research, the project partners are also developing a set of tools for the characterisation of nano-strain under industrially relevant conditions of high stress, and electric fields.
  • This combination of metrology studies, and the development of new instrumentation capability aims to establish the foundations in Europe from which our ICT, bio-medical, sensors and instrumentation sectors can innovate and lead the world in the future.

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