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Quantum technologies: UK wants more industry involvement

04 Nov 2016

Review co-written by government’s chief scientific advisor recommends matched private-sector funding in future phase.

by Mike Hatcher
The UK government’s chief scientific advisor has called for increased industry commitment – partly in the form of matched private-sector investment - in future phases of the National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP).

In a review of the five-year, £330 million effort just published, Professor Sir Mark Walport and co-author Professor Sir Peter Knight make 11 different recommendations – including the establishment of new quantum innovation centers funded along the lines of Germany’s Fraunhofer institutes.

‘Modern industrial strategy’
Launched in 2014 and largely funded through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the quantum program is centered around four university-led development “hubs”, each focused on a different set of quantum technology applications.

The investment, among the world’s largest, is intended to give the UK a jump-start on technologies like gravity imagers, encrypted communications, and cameras that can see around corners.

While prototype versions of some of those technologies have been developed, several of the recommendations in the so-called Blackett review are geared towards future commercialization and wealth creation off the back of the UK’s scientific expertise.

In his introduction to the review Greg Clark MP, secretary of state for the UK’s new ‘business, energy and industrial strategy’ government department, highlighted the potentially ground-breaking capabilities of the technology, as well as the need for a convergence of the country’s research base with industry to capitalize on the opportunity economically.

“This is what a modern industrial strategy means: not an attempt to cling on to the past, but a bold and confident claim to the future,” Clark wrote.

Speaking at the Innovate 2016 event in Manchester on November 3 – also the publication date of the Blackett review – Clark reiterated that desire to convert the UK’s scientific expertise into commercially significant products and services more effectively, saying that investment in research was a critical link to higher economic productivity.

While Brexit remains the elephant in the room, he said that the government’s recent efforts to convince Nissan to retain its large manufacturing presence in the UK resulted from telling the Japanese car maker that the country remained committed to innovation and advanced technological development.

Blackett recommendations
Among the 11 recommendations made by Walport and Knight in their review, several relate directly to optics technologies and applications. They include establishing a fiber-optic network to distribute high-precision time signals generated by a future generation of quantum clocks that would provide a back-up to satellite-based systems that are vulnerable to failure and disruption – potentially through deliberate interference.

“This might start as a city-wide demonstrator project and later expand to key locations around the UK,” write the two professors.

In the area of quantum-secured communications, they propose a closer collaboration between the NQTP efforts and the UK’s cybersecurity and cryptography experts, including collaborative funding for quantum key distribution (QKD) and “post-quantum cryptography” projects.

Cybersecurity is something of a flagship area for the UK, with the government recently announcing a £1.9 billion development effort as part of its wider industrial strategy, including setting up a national cybersecurity center.

The quantum technologies review suggests that this new center should support a pilot trial of QKD, using ‘realistic data in a realistic environment’. “Such a trial should serve to stimulate the supply chain and show UK leadership in secure communications,” recommend Walport and Knight.

On the commercialization front, they also call for a competitive process to establish new quantum innovation centers. “These centers would go beyond the scope of the current quantum technology hubs, involving the co-location of academic and industrial partners with the requirement for matched funding from industry,” they wrote, adding that such centers would play a similar role to Fraunhofer institutes.

Quantum project awards
Clark spoke alongside Trevor Cross, chairman of the NQTP’s special interest group and CTO at e2v technologies, at the Innovate 2016 event, with Cross highlighting the development of a tabletop-sized gravity imaging system as one of the early fruits of the quantum technology funding.

He expects that imager to be capable of conducting surveys in around three years, and pointed to applications in mining, archaeology and defense as the likely early uses for it. In the longer term – and if suitably shrunk - the equipment could even be launched aboard a satellite, from where it could be used to sense changes to the level of water tables.

While Clark and Cross were in Manchester, the NQTP was hosting its latest showcase of technology developments at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center in central London – an expansion of the packed-out event held at the Royal Society a year ago.

Industry and international connections were very much in evidence in London, with the French QKD company ID Quantique and Australian quantum computing start-up QxBranch both expected to open new UK offices to better co-ordinate with the NQTP effort.

On top of that, nearly 30 quantum technology projects involving industry have won backing in the latest round of funding through the NQTP’s “innovation fund”. More than half of those projects are focused on the development of components needed for quantum technology demonstrators, with the remainder spread across applications in timing, sensors, finance, healthcare, imaging and space.

Ultrafast laser company M-Squared is involved in no fewer than ten of the projects, including several efforts to advance the lasers needed in a large number of quantum applications.

Among the other industrial partners involved are e2v, Optocap, Coherent Scotland, and component maker RedWave Labs, which is working on a novel compact narrow-linewidth laser for gravimetric and other quantum applications.

• For the full list of collaborative projects funded in the NQTP’s latest round, click here.

About the Author

Mike Hatcher is the editor of optics.org

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