Justifying the hype in quantum technologies

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Greg Blackman reports from a quantum technologies panel discussion at SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco

During a Photonics West panel discussion on quantum technologies, an audience member asked whether the global investment in quantum technologies was justified – does quantum live up to the hype surrounding it, or will it go the way of some past up-and-coming technologies that promised much but failed to deliver?

There’s certainly a lot of hype surrounding quantum science, which the panellists seemed to think was justified, largely because, as noted by session chair Anke Lohmann, a quantum technologies consultant, quantum devices have been developed that actually work.

Rishiraj Pravahan, principal data scientist at AT&T Foundry, commented that there has been a critical mass of progress in quantum technologies. ‘There has been a concerted effort in the academic community,’ he said. ‘This makes it viable.’

The panellists pointed to quantum key distribution, quantum sensors, and chip-scale atomic clocks as all being commercial products or close to commercialisation.

The government investment into quantum is substantial. Qiang Zhang, a professor at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), put a rough estimate of the funding from the Chinese federal government as being between 5 to 10 billion RMB over five years, although he added that this is always being debated.

USTC has been leading two large projects in quantum communication. The first is the successful test of free-space quantum encryption via satellite between base stations in China and Austria, as detailed in a paper in Science last year.

‘That satellite [Micius] is quite big,’ Qiang Zhang commented during the session. ‘In the future, we have a plan to launch many nanosatellites, which will constitute a network.’

Qiang Zhang added that, on the surface, satellites seem an expensive way of setting up quantum communication networks, but actually they’re not compared to the cost of installing quantum repeaters every 100km or so over a long distance.

The second project led by USTC is a quantum link stretching 2,000km from Beijing to Shanghai, which was opened last year in cooperation with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).

Other governments are investing heavily as well. The European Commission has the opened the first calls in its €1 billion quantum flagship programme that will run over 10 years, while the UK government established four quantum hubs in 2014.

Lars Unnebrink from the German engineering association, the VDI, commented during the panel discussion that the German government will be a making substantial investment in quantum technologies, suggesting millions of euros a year to start with.

Germany has been working on a research agenda for more than a year, he said, with pilot projects on sensing, quantum key distribution, and optical clocks. ‘Nobody wants to be left behind,’ he added.

Quantum science is already a good business for photonics components suppliers. Gooch & Housego has been making revenue from quantum science for the last 17 years, noted Andrew Robertson, senior vice president at the company.

Gooch & Housego is working with the University of Birmingham on a project to build a small satellite payload capable of producing cold atoms in space. Robertson explained that project involves shrinking the laboratory setup into a package 10 x 20 x 2cm. Gooch & Housego is supplying a 780nm rubidium source; Robertson quoted the project as being worth £700,000.

Bosch has a project engineering colour centres in diamond into a small device capable of measuring brain magnetic fields. ‘We are collaborating with academic partners and other industry partners like Zeiss, which is also interested in this to use in brain surgery. We are focusing on miniaturisation of this technology,’ explained Robert Rölver from Bosch’s scouting quantum and nanotechnologies division.

Supply chains are forming for quantum science. Robertson noted that the UK has a good supply chain a fairly vibrant startup market. Unnebrink from VDI said that a quantum technologies company starting from scratch is not very viable, but he said that there are plenty of opportunities in the value chain. ‘There is plenty of room for some companies addressing the hardware for quantum,’ he said. ‘We are seeing a lot of this in Germany, and the UK is the same.’

Robertson made the point that, while Gooch & Housego doesn’t need to know how quantum technologies work to make money from them, the company does need skilled people with a background in quantum science.

The last two people Robertson recruited were from the University of Birmingham, he noted, which Gooch & Housego is working with on quantum projects. ‘Because we’re early enough in the game you start to see where your engineering technology can benefit the applications. We’re already thinking of IP that will apply to the quantum industry in the future.’

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