By Bob Cockshott, Knowledge Transfer Manager for Position, Navigation & Timing and Quantum and Quantum Technologies Special Interest Group lead.
Quantum physics has some extraordinary properties, but until recently many of these could not be applied to create commercial products or improve quality of life. Technology has now advanced to the point where these quantum effects can be harnessed to provide new capability in sensors, imagers, secure communications and, in future, computers.
In 2015 the UK government launched a 5-year national programme to commercialise quantum technology. At £400m, this is the largest public investment in a disruptive technology ever made in the UK.
A key breakthrough was cooling. At room temperature atoms jiggle about at roughly the speed of a jet airliner, but the exquisite control now possible with lasers (the technique won the Nobel prize for physics in 1997) can slow atoms literally to a snail’s pace, where quantum effects can be manipulated.
The quantum programme aims to keep the wealth created by these advances in the UK. British scientists won Nobel prizes for developing CT and MRI scanners, but neither is now made here. We don’t want the wealth created by quantum technology to leak away this time.
The UK already has the necessary world-class skills, from physicists in our universities to companies making ultra-high vacuum systems and state-of-the-art lasers. The programme has stimulated a thriving UK industry developing and supplying the highly specialised equipment needed to support the burgeoning global quantum R&D market.
But the big prize is exploiting the new capabilities with commercial products covering a wide range of potential applications.
Gravity sensors, accelerometers and gyros can be made highly sensitive and stable by harnessing clouds of slow moving atoms which can be used, for example, to measure the local gravity or very small accelerations and rotations.
Gravity sensors are already used to locate and map underground structures, and quantum devices could do this faster and cheaper. Some countries already mandate gravity surveys of brownfield sites to avoid nasty surprises such as forgotten cellars. Location of underground assets is a huge problem – 40% of the holes dug in London’s roads start in the wrong place – and there are vast savings to be made.
Navigation underground, underwater and in other GPS-denied navigation will also be possible using the sensitivity of quantum devices to match to local gravity maps.
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Prototype, field deployable quantum gravity sensor for surveying at the University of Birmingham
New medical sensors will be enabled by harnessing quantum techniques to precisely locate the tiny magnetic fields created by electric currents flowing naturally in the body, for example within the brain or the heart. Both have huge promise as diagnostic tools and to aid interventions such as treating atrial fibrillation (AF).
Lower cost, low power quantum clocks for controlling telecoms networks, power grids and time-stamping financial services are in development, as well as ultr-accurate clocks stable to one second over the age of the universe.
New imaging techniques are being developed, for example seeing through turbid media, seeing round corners, and seeing targets outside the visible part of the spectrum using low cost, single-pixel sensors. These exploit the ability of quantum systems to generate light with ultra-precise timing, and to create entangled pairs of photons so that interacting with one affects the other.
Entanglement can also be exploited for highly secure communication, where assurance that data has not been intercepted is baked into the quantum physics. Clearly this has many applications, especially as concern about hacking, privacy and security is increasing.
Finally, quantum computers show great promise, but are still some years from mass deployment. There are engineering challenges to be overcome, but the physics says the ability of quantum systems to represent many states simultaneously will enable processing of big data much faster than is currently possible, unlocking applications such as drug discovery and engineering modelling.
Quantum computers will need entirely different software to exploit their unique capabilities, and work on developing suitable mathematical techniques and algorithms has already started. The software is in itself a major market – possibly bigger than the hardware – and an area where UK capability is strong. Click here for more details on the state-of-the-art in quantum computers and the different types of machines under development.
KTN is working hard to link quantum capabilities to user needs and feedback those needs to technology developers, using our uniquely broad connections to many sectors.
For more information contact Bob Cockshott, Knowledge Transfer Manager, Quantum Technologies.