Spooky realm of infinite possibility

Quantum technology has the potential to transform the world in ways we can barely imagine, reports Kai Bongs.

Imagine a future in which you control your car or computer just by thinking what you want it to do; where sustainable cities make use of underground space, we can look into the ground and see the location of pipes, mines, sinkholes, mineral and oil and understand ground water and climate; where dementia can be actively controlled and supermarkets offer scanners to determine your skin type, recommending the correct lotion. These, and many more things, are visions offered by quantum technology.

The UKNQT Hub in Sensors and Metrology is an £80 million project within the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme. It brings together a consortium made up of the Universities of Birmingham, Glasgow, Nottingham, Southampton, Strathclyde and Sussex with the National Physical Laboratory, Dstl (the technology arm of the Ministry of Defence) and more than 70 industry partners to accelerate innovation from fundamental quantum science to commercial applications.

quantum-technology-2Quantum mechanics provides a microscopic understanding of nature and has led to the development of the transistor, laser and other building blocks of modern technology. This so called ‘Quantum 1.0 revolution’ is now to be followed by Quantum 2.0. Quantum2.0 is all about harnessing the ‘spooky’ properties of quantum mechanics, which become manifest as technological manipulation capabilities reach the single particle level. At this level a particle can for example be in a so-called ‘superposition of states’, allowing it to be in two places at the same time or simultaneously in the excited and in the ground state. If you let a particle simultaneously explore two paths at different heights, its state will become sensitive to gravity; if the paths enclose an area, it will sense rotation and if they differ internally it will measure time or magnetic fields with utmost precision.

The quantum sensors developed in the UK National Quantum Technology Hub in Sensors and Metrology exploit the application of atoms and ions as quantum probes. The game-changing scientific advances in this area led to the award of Nobel Prizes in Physics in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2012. Lasers are used to control the position and momentum of the atoms at the quantum level, putting them into the appropriate superposition for any desired precision measurement.

Gravity sensors using atoms as probe particles can sense a person just by their gravitational field. As gravity penetrates any material, these devices facilitate ‘seeing’ into the ground. They will, in particular, be sensitive to density variations, promising to detect gas pipes, leaks in water lines, sinkholes under roads as well as assessing the integrity of river dams or rail tracks. They will help to make sure no old mineshafts or tunnels are under your plot to build a house. Gravity sensors could reveal historical artefacts, such as buried monuments in areas like Stonehenge where you cannot easily dig. It could further help our energy supplies by finding hidden oil bubbles and supervising sequestrated CO2 storage sites and open up new avenues in exploring for minerals, making sure future hi-tech materials are in ready supply. They will also make our lives safer by understanding ground water resources on a global scale and might even allow us to reduce the risk of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions from monitoring magma flows and tectonic movements. Together with precision atomic rotation sensors, they further promise future navigation system, which are independent of satellites and can work in densely built environments, underground or under water.

Quantum technology promises to make atomic clocks accessible to everyone, giving more precise navigation, ultra high-speed broadband connections, resilient smart energy networks and reliably time-stamped financial transactions. Part of the need for precise and robust clock technology is coming from a security perspective. A lot of timing in current communication networks is making use of timing corrections from navigation satellites to keep everything synchronised. There is some resilience due to central master atomic clocks and network based synchronisation, but a prolonged failure of timing signals from navigation satellites might cause significant problems. With the spread of jamming technology and the ‘once in a century’ potential of a huge solar flare taking out all satellite electronics, there are real risks to communication, which might be mediated by highly precise local quantum technology clocks.

Particularly fascinating visions arise from magnetic sensors based on quantum technology. Atomic magnetic sensors are sufficiently precise to pick up the tiny magnetic currents associated with brain activity or cell communications. Imagine glasses with little sensors attached to them picking up activity in your brain. With a little training these promise to enable steering machines or computers by thought – a fascinating perspective ranging from computer games to work in dangerous environments where both hands are needed. This might also provide a key to solving some of humanity’s problems such as dementia. Dementia is often related to obstructed communication channels in the brain. A sensitive magnetic sensor helmet could pick up communication in the brain and identify problems – allowing doctors to assess the effectivity of drugs, suggesting taking the next dose at the appropriate time or even closing an active brain stimulation loop to remove the effects of dementia in real life.

Given the nature of innovation, it is likely that not all of the above visions will become a reality, but history tells us that some are probable and there will be many more we can’t even dream of at this stage. The UK National Quantum Technology Hub in Sensors and Metrology is now starting this journey and we are inviting everyone to explore their dreams with us.

Professor Kai Bongs is director of the UK National Quantum Technology Hub in Sensors and Metrology at Birmingham.