From devices that can answer some of the fundamental physics questions, to sensors for the construction industry, to defense and security technology, the UK is heavily invested in quantum sensors.
Powered by the often counter-intuitive phenomenon at the heart of quantum physics, such as entanglement and superposition, quantum technology stands on the brink of revolutionizing computing, communication, imaging, and sensors.
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While quantum computers may get the lion’s share of attention in this burgeoning field of quantum technology, quantum sensors are not waiting for major breakthroughs to make them feasible; this technology is already here.
Many countries are majorly investing in such technology to get a head start in an area of technology that the University of Birmingham says1 will play a major role in technology as diverse as autonomous transport, navigation, and brain imaging to the Internet of Things.
One country determined not to be left behind in the quantum sensor revolution is the United Kingdom. The UK’s commitment to quantum technology encompassing sensors includes several investment programs over a wide range of fields with an impressive variety of uses.
The UK Rises to the Challenge of Quantum Technology
One organization in the UK that really epitomizes the concept of investment in a quantum future is UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
Just this month (January 2023), the UKRI announced the Commercialising quantum technologies challenge, a £153 million investment supported by £205 million from industry partners that are designated to help the development of new products and technologies based on advances in quantum science.
The funding opportunities offered by the UKRI extend to large organizations down to micro organizations and fund everything from research and development projects, feasibility studies, industrial research, and experimental development.
In August 2022, the UKRI announced3 a £6 million investment in support of the Quantum Technologies for Fundamental Physics, which is jointly funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
The grant was intended to demonstrate high-risk discovery and support projects that use quantum technology to investigate fundamental physics, including quantum sensors to antimatter.
Also funded by the grant is the quantum sensing for antimatter gravity (QSAG) project, which aims to test if matter and antimatter interact with gravity in the same way.
This investigation could answer the fundamental question of why, when physical processes create equal amounts of matter and antimatter, including at the very beginning of time, the universe still ended with vastly more matter than antimatter.
Another of the projects funded by the boost focuses on another form of matter, dark matter. This mysterious form of matter outnumbers ordinary particles of matter 5 to 1, but because it does not interact with light, it remains all but invisible. The project suggests a quantum optomechanical sensor to detect dark matter.
Previously in June 2020, the UKRI announced it would be funding 38 new quantum projects representing an investment of £70 million. This included funded quantum-enabled sensors to reduce greenhouse gas emissions being developed by QLM, a start-up located in Bristol.
Prior to this, in 2018, the UKRI invested £20 million in several Pioneer projects, including the development of four prototype quantum-enabled devices. One of these four projects, led by RSK is the use of quantum sensors to detect objects underground. This could help construction projects in the road and rail industries avoid unexpected obstructions.
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UK Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology Goes Deep
The UK Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology is an £80 million consortium that aims to build quantum sensors that can detect a wide range of elements of the universe from gravity magnetic fields, rotation, time, 1 trillion hertz radiation, and quantum light.
One of the aims of the hub is to use quantum sensors to detect what lies just a few meters below the ground in urban areas. This includes investigating utility infrastructure such as pipes, cables, sewers, and transport infrastructure.
Even deeper the quantum sensor could help warn of potential geotechnical risks like mine shafts, old foundations, and even emerging sinkholes. Based on gravity sensors that drop clouds of charged atoms in a superposition of states that can reveal changes in density, the instruments developed as part of the initiative could go much deeper than current Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) platforms, which can only delve a few centimeters.
The hope is this can help boost the global construction industry, which although linked to 13% of GDP, has experienced only a 1% annual productivity rate increase over the past two decades.
The hub is not just pioneering quantum sensors going deep below the surface of Earth; it is also helping to develop quantum sensors to assist in the measurement of magnetic fields generated by the flow of current through neuronal assemblies in the brain.
This could help to reveal how the brain, as part of cognition, forms neural networks and then dissolves them on an incredibly short timescale. Quantum sensors have the edge over current tools in the field as they can deliver results as a subject is moving, meaning they could be more useful in monitoring conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Unlike a common modern-day brain imaging tool, the electroencephalogram (EEG), quantum sensors do not depend on electricity and therefore aren’t affected by conductive intracranial fluid, which can wash out EEG imaging.
This makes quantum sensors a potentially impressive step forward in the non-invasive study of the brain.
The UK Government Boosts Quantum Technology
In June 2019, the UK government announced4 a major milestone as investment in the National Quantum Technologies Programme reached £1 billion.
The UK National Quantum Technologies Programme5 is an industry and government collaboration with academia that supports quantum technology and aims to place the UK at the heart of global quantum science and technology development.
Via the Ministry of Defence, the UK government also operates the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), which describes itself as “the science inside UK defense and security6.”
Dtsl says that all areas of its work are underpinned by sensor technology, meaning it is currently deeply involved in working with partners to develop quantum sensing tech. The drive of its work is to enhance the defense and security of the UK.
The quantum sensor projects supported by the Dtsl have thus far included the generation of laser-cooled rubidium atoms as a tool for operations like underground sensing and gravity map building and the development of a quantum gravity gradiometer. This instrument became the first sensor to successfully detect an underground tunnel outside.
Dstl has also developed quantum sensors that perform sensing tasks that once would have taken an entire room of technology that are small and light enough to be attached to small unmanned aerial vehicles.
The innovations listed above are an in no way an exhaustive demonstration of the commitment the UK has to quantum sensors.
References and Further Reading
Are quantum sensors the key to transforming our lives? University of Birmingham. Available at: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/quest/emerging-frontiers/quantum-sensors.aspx
Commercialising quantum technologies challenge, UKRI, Available at: https://www.ukri.org/what-we-offer/our-main-funds/industrial-strategy-challenge-fund/artificial-intelligence-and-data-economy/commercialising-quantum-technologies-challenge/.
£6 million to spur the UK’s quantum leap, UKRI, Available at: https://www.ukri.org/news/6-million-to-spur-the-uks-quantum-leap/
£1 billion investment makes UK a frontrunner in quantum technologies, GOV.UK, Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/1-billion-investment-makes-uk-a-frontrunner-in-quantum-technologies.
UK National Quantum Technologies Programme. Available at: https://uknqt.ukri.org/.
About Us, Dtsl, Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/defence-science-and-technology-laboratory/about.