Government funding will allow quantum technology industry to flourish in UK

Science Minister Greg Clark this week announced funding for four Quantum Technology Hubs within a £270 million UK quantum technology initiative. The successful hubs are led by the universities of Birmingham, Glasgow, Oxford and York and cover the areas of quantum sensors, imaging, information and communication.

The quantum technology initiative is a bold move by the UK government that has attracted international attention and envious looks from researchers in other countries. Its focus and volume have set a widely visible benchmark and clearly demonstrate the ambition of the UK to take the economic lead in the emerging area of quantum technologies.

Quantum research has been strongly supported for some time in the US, Australia, Europe and the UK, with countries in Asia – particularly China – rapidly increasing their activities. However, much of the funding has been dedicated to basic science.

What is special about the new UK quantum technology initiative is its focus on technology transfer from fundamental science to application. This translational focus sets the UK initiative apart from other schemes and promises an exciting experiment in innovation.

The traditional lines of company research have been disintegrating against a backdrop of ever increasing demand for quick return on investment in a global economy with shorter development cycles and reduced product life cycles.

The question is whether we can find new ways to harness the strength of UK universities’ basic science research for the creation of new products and wider economic benefits.

Quantum technology has been identified as a promising target area for innovation amid discussion about the imminent second quantum revolution. The first quantum revolution was based on our understanding of the laws of quantum mechanics, which led to the development of the lasers and integrated circuits that form the basis of most modern technology.

The second quantum revolution will lead us to exploit the spooky features of quantum mechanics – for example, the possibility of particles being in two places or two internal states at one time. This opens up wide parameter spaces for technology to operate in, enabling novel ways of computation, secure communication and precise sensing.

The UK Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology, led by the University of Birmingham, builds on existing ‘translation-ready’ laboratory demonstrations of precise quantum sensing of gravity, time, rotation, and magnetic and electromagnetic fields.

The idea is to foster a UK quantum sensor industry through a two-pronged approach: first, creating robust, cheap and reliable component technologies, and second, building a market by demonstrating unique applications of interest to end users, such as mapping the underground to detect leaking water pipes; reducing roadworks in water infrastructure maintenance programmes; locating oil fields; measuring brain functions for dementia research, or building gaming interfaces between the brain and the computer.

We are on the way to creating a UK ‘Quantum Valley’, which, similar to Silicon Valley in the US, will provide an ecosystem of supply chain industries, skilled workforce and educated end users in which a multi-billion-pound quantum technology industry can flourish. On the way, we might establish the UK as a new paradigm of successful government intervention for accelerated innovation.

Professor Kai Bongs
Professor of Cold Atom Physics,
University of Birmingham