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Quantum buzz as metrology institute opens

12 Nov 2015

Packed-out technology roadshow at the Royal Society follows opening of new Quantum Metrology Institute at the UK's National Physical Laboratory.

by Mike Hatcher in London
The UK’s national program to develop real-world technologies based on the “spooky” effects of quantum phenomena has celebrated its first year with a packed-out event at The Royal Society in London.

Held just a week after the new Quantum Metrology Institute (QMI) at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) officially opened, the National Quantum Technology Showcase included a dozen table-top exhibits of largely photonics-based prototypes indicating the kinds of applications that it is hoped will become fully commercial before the end of the initial five-year funding period.

They included cameras able to see around corners, optical atomic clocks, interferometry-based gravity imagers, quantum encryption for consumer devices using photonic integrated circuits (PICs), and potential building blocks for future quantum computers.

David Delpy, previously CEO of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and now chair of the quantum technology network’s strategic advisory board, kicked off the showcase with a call for extensive industry collaboration and engagement with the likely end users of commercial equipment based on quantum physics.

“Our vision is to develop a world-leading position in quantum technologies,” Delpy told delegates. “When the world thinks about quantum technology we want them to think about the UK.”

Referencing a packed-out event that created a palpable buzz amid the Royal Society’s historic marble halls and wood paneled rooms, he added: “Something has changed. We are completely full.”

Delpy also stressed the level of industry engagement that the four individual quantum “hubs” are working to stimulate, saying: “Industry has been embedded right from the outset. [This] program is a combination of academic and business partners and we want commercial support. The £270 million [initial, five-year UK government funding for the network] is just a kick-start.”

Acknowledging the potential for some 'creative tensions' between academic and industry partners, Delpy noted that physicists are rather proud of the 'spookiness' of quantum technology, but that this inherent ambiguity is not something that industry would naturally gravitate towards.

However, industry is very visibly represented in the quantum network, with a special interest group chaired by e2v Technologies CTO Trevor Cross and more than 160 companies already involved in the four hubs. Also speaking at the event, Cross was optimistic about the future translation of quantum science into tangible commercial products:

“We’re at a point in time when a new raft of functionality will lead to new technologies,” he told delegates at the Royal Society. “This is happening right now, and supply chains are beginning to take shape. This is more than a technology ‘push’.”

Quantum roadmap
The quantum technology program has been set up deliberately to combine some relatively “quick wins” - for example the single-pixel cameras for methane imaging being developed at the Glasgow-based QuantIC hub led by the optics professor and SPIE Fellow Miles Padgett – with the much longer-term goals of building quantum computers.

The intention is to demonstrate several real-world applications of quantum technology within the initial five-year funding time frame, and thus be in a strong position to attract more funding subsequently.

Appearing on BBC Radio 4's Today program ahead of the Royal Society showcase Padgett hailed the strong industry connection, saying that 20 per cent of the QuantIC initial funding had been set aside to be allocated by its industry partners.

"My personal experience is that [interacting with industry] has been incredibly stimulating," he said. "It makes you think about problems differently, and it is thinking differently about things which leads to scientific creativity."

Industry is set to play an increasingly important part in funding as the technology and applications develop, with Cross and Delpy both looking for close engagement with systems companies and end users as well as high-performance component makers like e2v.

To that end, the Cross-chaired special interest group has compiled a quantum technology “roadmap” outlining key target markets, and the current status and challenges facing applications like atomic clocks, gravity and magnetic sensors, quantum encryption and computing.

In his introduction to that document, drawn up after a series of workshops involving funding agencies, academic partners and the private sector, Cross writes: “This roadmap is for anyone with an interest in this emerging sector, particularly business.”

He continues: “It shows companies where new opportunities in quantum technologies overlap with their interests and helps them understand how these new applications could drive their growth.”

Metrology for credibility
Underpinning the credibility of the “spooky” quantum technologies will be the new QMI, which is charged with developing new measurement techniques and fundamental standards under the auspices of the NPL.

Formally opened by local member of parliament Tania Mathias (a medical doctor who also sits on the UK parliament’s science and technology committee) on November 5, the QMI will host a national center for testing and validating quantum technologies “to secure the confidence and investment necessary to commercialize new products”.

Quantum optics professor Sir Peter Knight, who is chairing the QMI, said: "Because quantum technologies are based on very advanced and extraordinary physics, validation is crucial to getting investors and industry on board to accelerate the commercialization of them.

“As the UK's home of measurement, with over one hundred years' experience in helping new technologies make the jump from lab to market, NPL is the best place for this testing and validation to be conducted to ensure that the UK can start benefiting from amazing new technologies as soon as possible.”

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