Measurement science is a vital driver of innovation in quantum technologies - including quantum computing, secure communications, timing and navigation, and sensors that detect heartbeats and brainwaves - as outlined in a new report from the Quantum Metrology Institute (QMI).
Quantum technologies are based on the surprising properties of single atoms, electrons and photons. For quantum technologies to become commercially viable, innovators need reliable methods to measure and detect quantum states of particles.
At the quantum scale, particles follow different rules to human-scale objects. Of major interest are ‘superposition’ whereby particles exist in two states simultaneously; and ‘entanglement’ whereby changing the state of one particle simultaneously induces change in another. Long restricted to theoretical physics, these quantum phenomena are now being harnessed for a new generation of technologies.
The report discusses the scientific and technological successes of the UK quantum measurement community in supporting these industries, since the QMI was established in 2015 at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL).
Highlights of the achievements outlined in the report, include:
- Developing cold-ion microtraps, a scalable, chip size technology that traps particles able to encode quantum states to create ‘qubits’. These are quantum equivalents of ‘bits’ - the 1s and 0s in standard computing - but that allow many times more information to be processed. These microtraps are a strong candidate for use in ultra-fast quantum computers.
- Supporting commercialisation of Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), a potentially ultra-secure communications method. Here, a key is encoded into properties of light which can be used to decrypt a message. In quantum mechanics, observing a particle can change its state. If the photons (particles of light) arrive unchanged, the receiver can be sure the key has not been intercepted. The QMI is developing methods for counting photons and measuring their quantum states.
- Developing the MINAC miniature atomic clock, a portable atomic clock that brings accurate timing to many new applications, such as for reliable energy supply, transport, mobile communications, data networks and electronic financial transactions. Atomic clocks are based on measuring very precisely the wavelength (or frequency) of light absorbed by atoms.
- Creating atomic magnetometers, which could be used as quantum sensors to detect brain waves, heart arrhythmia, explosive residue, and corrosion. Each of these has a distinct but very weak magnetic field that leaves a ‘quantum fingerprint’ on the atoms around them. The QMI is establishing atomic vapour cells and methods to probe the atoms to detect the influence of magnetic fields.
Many projects involve close collaboration with UK business and academia. Work covers both the fundamental research that will underpin technologies still a decade away, such as quantum computing; through to industry collaborations on close-to-market technologies, such as QKD with BT and Toshiba, and MINAC with Teledyne e2v.
Rhys Lewis, Director of the QMI, launched the report at The National Quantum Technologies Showcase, saying: “Measurement bridges the gap between research and commercial exploitation. For companies to innovate in quantum technology, they need to understand and define the properties of the systems they are developing. To develop saleable products, they need to provide verified evidence that the technology is built on sound scientific and engineering principles, and that it will perform as described.”
“As today’s report shows, the QMI is developing the quantum measurement infrastructure to independently test, measure and validate new innovations. We will be a partner to the innovators that emerge in the quantum industry. We will conduct research that underpins quantum innovations, we will train quantum scientists, and we will develop capabilities and facilities as required to address changing measurement needs. In doing so, the advances from the UK measurement community will unblock routes to commercialisation, helping UK industry develop quantum technologies which drive UK economic growth.”