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UK selects quantum development hubs

26 Nov 2014

Work to commercialize quantum mechanics will include building the UK's first quantum-encrypted network and a small quantum computer.

The UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has selected the four UK universities that will co-ordinate the injection of £270 million in research funding for quantum technologies.

The four - Glasgow, York, Birmingham and Oxford - will be focused on applications in imaging, communications, sensing and computing respectively. Goals include building the UK’s very first ultra-secure quantum network, as well as a small but scalable quantum computer.

The hubs will all link up with a new £4 million Quantum Metrology Institute (QMI) being established at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) with money from the same EPSRC pot. The QMI is chaired by Sir Peter Knight, who said that it would provide a critical test-bed that would help accelerate commercialization of the UK's quantum technology research effort.

Announced in Birmingham by UK minister for universities, science and cities Greg Clark, the funding is intended to ensure the successful transition of quantum technologies from the laboratory to industry.

As a result, the four networks collectively feature no fewer than 132 private-sector collaborators, including some major players in the photonics industry. Among them are Coherent’s UK wing, sensor manufacturer e2v technologies, Glasgow-based ultrafast laser company M-Squared and Oxford Instruments, while larger commercial partners include Thales, Selex and BP, plus the UK’s top-secret Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

Clark said: “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.”

EPSRC chief executive Philip Nelson added: “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.”

Birmingham researchers Kai Bongs and Nicola Wilkins on quantum technologies:

Enhanced imaging hub
Heading up the £29 million, five-year investment allocated to quantum imaging via the Glasgow hub is lead academic Miles Padgett, who said: “The hub’s vision is to work in partnership with industry to translate our world-leading discovery science into revolutionary imaging systems that will benefit the UK economy across commercial, scientific and security sectors.”

The imaging hub brings together the Universities of Glasgow, Bristol, Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, Oxford and Strathclyde with 37 industry partners.

Existing work in the area at Glasgow includes a project that uses simple single-pixel sensors to create sophisticated ultraviolet or infrared video images much more affordably than previously possible. Those sensors could become useful for imaging gas leaks or identifying tumors in the future.

A new camera being developed by a Heriot-Watt University team uses photon-timing techniques to identify objects around corners. It can also image through walls or opaque biological tissue.

Steve Beaumont, director of the quantum imaging hub, said that the its cash allocation included a £4 million partnership fund to support industry-led projects, as well as a Scottish Funding Council investment of £3 million for new “innovation space” where companies will be able to work alongside university researchers to develop prototypes.

Quantum sensing and metrology
Led by Kai Bongs (see video above) at the University of Birmingham, the quantum sensing and metrology hub will work on more accurate ways to measure fundamental properties like time, frequency, rotation, magnetic fields and gravity. Applications ranging from dementia research to locating archaeological treasures are anticipated.

Partners include academics at the universities of Southampton, Strathclyde, Sussex, Nottingham and Glasgow, who will aim to create a supply chain for quantum sensor technology, and build a series of quantum sensor and metrology prototype devices.

“These sensors are not just sensitive, but will be very quick,” announced the Birmingham team. “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.”

Bongs himself said: “[The] 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.

"Within five years, we want to establish something like a 'Quantum Valley' in the UK, analogous to Silicon Valley in the US," added Bongs. In 20 years, he envisages today's bench-scale quantum technology being scaled down to the size of a mobile handset.

The new QMI at NPL will be particularly closely involved in this hub, providing expertise and facilities for both academia and industry to test, validate, and commercialize the developed technologies.

Quantum computing
Meanwhile quantum computing – which has long promised huge advances in processing power by exploiting phenomena like the superposition of multiple digital states and quantum entanglement – will be the focus at the £38 million Oxford-led hub under Ian Walmsley.

It will partner with academics from Bath, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Leeds, Southampton, Strathclyde, Sussex and Warwick, as well as dozens of national and international companies, on fundamental work, machine learning and applications in "big data". But the "flagship goal" will be to build a fully-functional small quantum computer called "Q20:20".

Walmsley said: “The Oxford-led hub will use a novel network architecture, where building blocks such as trapped ions, superconducting circuits, or electron spins in solids, are linked up by photonic quantum interconnects. This naturally aligns with the work at other hubs, through systems like distributed sensors and communications networks.”

Chip-scale encryption
Led by Tim Spiller at York University, the quantum communications hub will work towards widespread and affordable use of technologies like quantum key distribution (QKD) – which has been deployed commercially but is extremely expensive.

One key goal is to work towards chip-scale integration of QKD, something that would dramatically reduce the size and manufacturing costs of the technique, which relies on single-photon sources and detectors.

Construction of the UK’s first quantum network, to demonstrate the effectiveness of QKD, is one of the aims of the hub - which should also provide early access for industry, business clusters and other community users.

“This will be based initially on the National Dark Fibre Infrastructure Service (NDFIS), which currently links a number of the hub’s university partners,” said the York team. “The new network will be extended to other sites over time, providing a geographically distributed test-bed outside the lab for developing, testing and demonstrating new quantum technologies and services.”

The York-led partnership also involves researchers from the universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Heriot-Watt, Leeds, Royal Holloway, Sheffield and Strathclyde, alongside key industrial partners such as Toshiba Research Europe, which has long-standing expertise in QKD equipment.

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