Exploiting the 'spooky effects' of quantum mechanics: physicists receive £80 million in funding

A consortium led by physicists at the University of Birmingham including the Universities of Glasgow, Nottingham, Southampton, Strathclyde and Sussex have been awarded a UK Quantum Technology Hub with a total EPSRC, University and industry contribution exceeding £80 million to translate their work in quantum sensors into technology that could help industry solve many problems.

The national investment, announced today (Wednesday 26 November) by Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities, Greg Clark, totals £270 million for research into quantum technology across four hubs of scientists led by the Universities of Birmingham, Oxford, York and Glasgow.

By exploiting the extreme sensitivity of quantum sensors, physicists working with industry will be able to bring to the market place technology that will enable them to look accurately and non-destructively in many scenarios, from mapping pipework and cabling under the road surface before digging takes place, reducing disruption and traffic delays; monitoring water levels in aquifers in drought prone areas, as well as providing a non-invasive way of measuring brain activity to further research into dementia.

These sensors are not just sensitive, but will be very quick: the ‘optical lattice’ clocks that could be built as a result of this technology will also be found in the increasingly fast high-frequency trading in financial markets, where the measurement of time to ascertain who bids first needs to be accurate.

The science behind the sensors is based on the fact that super cold atoms can be in two places at once. Described by scientists as a ‘spooky effect’, a single atom can travel in two directions at the same time, creating an interference pattern. By sending an atom at the same time down two different routes it explores these two routes simultaneously. It is very sensitive to changes in gravity and can measure very accurately the differences in gravity between the two paths.

Greg Clark, Minister for Universities, Science and Cities with Professor Kai BongsGreg Clark, Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities said: 'This exciting new Quantum Hubs network will push the boundaries of knowledge and exploit new technologies, to the benefit of healthcare, communications and security. This investment in Quantum technologies has the potential to bring game-changing advantages to future timing, sensing and navigation capabilities that could support multi-billion pound markets in the UK and globally. Today’s announcement is another example of the Government’s recognition of the UK’s science base and its critical contribution to our sustained economic growth'. 

Professor Philip Nelson, EPSRC’s Chief Executive said:‘These new hubs will build on our previous investments in quantum science. They will draw together scientists, engineers and technologists from across the UK who will explore how we can exploit the intriguing properties of the quantum realm. The area offers great promise, and the hubs will keep the UK at the leading edge of this exciting field.’

Professor Kai Bongs, who leads the Birmingham consortium at the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said: ‘In quantum mechanical systems, it is quite normal for two distinct states of a system to co-exist. In the everyday world this could be imagined as having summer and winter at the same time. This spooky property called ‘quantum superposition’ where an atom can be in two places at the same time is now destined to become part of the everyday world thanks to the funding of our Quantum Technology Hub.’

Professor Malcolm Press, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Transfer at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘The hub has already drawn engagement from over 70 industrial partners, and will nurture many more. Once we have developed these new prototype sensor devices in the lab, we will then be in a position to demonstrate them to our industry partners, thereby developing new business potential, and a new market pool.’


Notes to editors

  • Watch Professor Christopher Rogers discuss the usefulness of gravity gradient sensors - which utilise quantum technology - in facilitating underground surveying, construction and conservation. 
  • Watch Professor Andy Schofield explain some of the University's exciting developments in the field of Quantum Technology - the practical application of some of the spookier aspects of quantum physics. 

The UK National Quantum Technologies Programme aims to ensure the successful transition of quantum technologies from laboratory to industry. The programme is delivered by EPSRC, Innovate UK, BIS, NPL, GCHQ, DSTL and the KTN.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800m a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

The University of Birmingham was named The Timesand The Sunday TimesUniversity of the Year 2013/4. The University is ranked among the world’s top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, and more than 4,000 international students from nearly 150 countries.

For further information please contact Kate Chapple, Press Office, University of Birmingham on +44 (0)121 414 2772 or +44 (0)7789 921164