Calibrating the UAE: take a look inside the metrology lab where everything is measured

The Emirates Metrology Institute's clock will record time accurately for at least another 300,000 years

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The UAE’s most accurate timepiece, against which all clocks in the UAE are measured, lies in a lab at the Emirates Metrology Institute in Abu Dhabi.

It will continue to record time accurately for more than 300,000 years. If there is a power cut, there are three servers to back it up.

Its accuracy is to more than 1,000 nanoseconds — “0.1 pico,” clarifies Waleed Al Kalbani, head of the Electrical, Time and Frequency laboratory.

Less than a second off would spell disaster as planes, car radars and even the UAE Space Agency have time set against this clock.

Below the display that shows time in UAE, another clock is ticking away.

The clocks that tell the universal time coordinates for United Arab Emirates at the Emirates Metrology Institute in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

This is the “universal time”, on which the entire world depends, explains Mr Al Kalbani.

Known formerly as Greenwich Mean Time or GMT. it's the time zone around which all other are based. Greenwich is in south-east London, and the UK operates on GMT throughout the winter, and GMT+1 in the summer, also known as BST, or British Summer Time.

“In 300,000 years there might be a drift or a lapse of less than a second but that can be adjusted,” says Mr Al Kalbani. "This timer will continue ticking ... long after I and my great-great-great grandchildren are gone."

Officials at the EMI do, however, automatically check for its accuracy every month by comparing UAE time to the UTC, which stands for Universal Time Co-ordinated. This is, in essence, the less UK-centric successor to GMT and is also known in military terms as 'Zulu'.

Adjusting time

Adjustments are rare but not unknown. The highest authority in the world, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM), meets in Paris to make decisions about adjustments, such as during leap years.

BIPM is an intergovernmental organisation, through which its 59 member states act together on measurement standards in four areas: chemistry, ionising radiation, physical metrology and co-ordinated universal time.

Leap seconds have been added 27 times since 1972. There were leap seconds added on June 30, 2015, and on June 30, 2012.

Khalid Al Mazrouei, senior metrologist, shows the volume metric flask and weighing scale. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

Measuring the measures

One could argue that the clock is the least interesting feature at the EMI in Masdar City.

Metrology is the science of measurement and at EMI every imaginable product is measured.

These can be solid objects or liquid, even air.

Giving an example, quality manager Mohamed Al Mulla says: “At the gold souq, we calibrate the weights used to verifying the weighing scales. At gas stations, we calibrate the volumetric cylinders that are used to verify the gas nozzles and the machines used to measure how much petrol is being pumped into your car and the price. The same applies to utilities [such as water and gas].”

At the supermarket, inspectors calibrate the weight machines used to measure fruits and vegetables.

Even something as small as a torque wrench used at a car workshop can be measured at the Force, Torque and Pressure Laboratory.

“We calibrate and measure the meters and weighing machines used to measure products so we are basically the measurers of the measures,” says senior metrologist Khaled Al Mazrouei.

EMI's measuring weights start from 1mg and can go up to a 1000kg.

The weights are handled with gloves as even the oil from your fingertips could add to the overall weight of an object.

"The temperature of the body can even affect the weight, which is why we wear gloves or use handlers such as tweezers," says Mr Al Mazrouei.

EMI laboratories are made up of the following five departments; Mass Volume and Flow, Dimension, Temperature and Humidity, Force Torque and Pressure, and Electrical Time Frequency and Power

Each plays a critical role in the Emirates, including the Temperature and Humidity lab, which measures important environments such a neonatal incubators and hospitals.

EMI was established in 2009, before which the majority of products had to be sent abroad for testing.

Now, the metrology institute offers their services to private businesses and has contracts with government stakeholders such as the Ministry of Defence and the Abu Dhabi judicial department.

“For any nation and market to develop, there has to be standards and specifications in place for the safety of the public and the consumer. This is where our role comes in,” said EMI executive director Saeed Almheiri.

Updated: August 15, 2022, 9:29 AM