Harnessing quantum technology for UK plc

6 mins read

November saw the opening of the Quantum Metrology Institute (QMI). Based at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington, it forms a key element in the UK’s efforts to exploit quantum technology commercially through the National Quantum Technologies programme.

Quantum theory first appeared in the early part of the 20th Century and was used to explain how light and matter behave at a fundamental level. Today, a new generation of quantum technologies has been created through engineering and exploitation of naturally occurring quantum effects.

The science community believes the UK is well placed to emerge as a global leader in what is being described as a ‘quantum revolution’ and those behind the launch of the QMI believe it will help to accelerate the development of the UK’s burgeoning quantum technology industry.

“Collaboration is at the heart of what we do here at the NPL,” explained Dr Rhys Lewis, director of the QMI, speaking at the launch of the Institute. “When the NPL was established at the turn of the 20th Century, its purpose was to apply scientific research in a practical way to every day industry and commercial life. That was the case back in 1902 and it certainly remains the case with quantum technology in 2015. Our aim, with the launch of the QMI, is to build links between the science community and industry in order to drive economic growth and job creation in the UK.”

The NPL currently employs more than 500 scientists in many disciplines, along with more 200 guest workers and students from around the world. Owned by the UK Government, it works in partnership with the Universities of Surrey and Strathclyde and is a centre of collaborative scientific research in the UK. More than 100 scientists will be working for the QMI, focusing on quantum technologies in a number of new laboratories.

The QMI, funded through a £4million investment from the UK National Quantum Technologies programme, is intended to house the UK’s primary capability to test and validate new designs, prototypes and products based on quantum technology.

Developers, investors and end users will be able to access the facility’s extensive resources and, at its launch, the QMI was described as being the ‘go to’ place for quantum technology commercialisation.

“We want to be able to attract the very best scientific talent and ensure sustained inward investment,” said Dr Lewis.

“The UK has long been recognised as a leader in quantum research and we now have the chance to build a solid and successful industrial base around fundamental science and engineering excellence. We want to inspire a generation of new quantum technologists from UK schools and universities,” explained Sir Peter Knight, QMI chair.

Disruptive technology

Quantum science has the potential to generate the kind of disruption caused by quantum mechanics in the last Century, which led to the development of semiconductors, microprocessors, lasers, nuclear energy, thermal imagers and the like.

“We refer to that as Quantum 1.0,” said Dr Lewis. “What the QMI heralds is Quantum 2.0.”

In 2013, the UK government allocated £270million towards the development of a range of quantum technologies in what was seen as one of the biggest single investments ever made in a disruptive technology.

Sir Peter played a pivotal role in securing this support, cajoling and encouraging various players to work together and to present their ideas to Government.

“We talked with interested parties before meeting government,” he explained. “There was a lot of goodwill across all parties, who are determined to ensure that this works. Our aim remains to create a fully functioning quantum ecosystem that is capable of bringing UK manufacturing and our scientific expertise together, with a view to creating an industry capable of delivering clear benefits to the UK economy.”

While the UK is well placed, it is not alone when it comes to investing in quantum technologies. Since 2010, a growing number of countries have started to invest money and resources. China, Korea and the Netherlands have all pledged support and, while the UK government is investing significant sums, it only covers the next five years.

“We have a 10 year vision, but only five year’s money,” said Sir Peter, speaking before the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. “We need to move into the development phase of R&D.”

The UK’s funding was divided between the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPRSC), InnovateUK and the NPL, with the bulk of the funding going to the EPRSC to fund a network of quantum technology research hubs, which is now up and running.

The hubs are led by Birmingham University (sensors and metrology), Glasgow University (quantum enhanced imaging), York University (quantum secure communications) and Oxford University (networked quantum information systems).

Five key quantum areas have been identified: secure communications; metrology; sensing; simulation; and quantum computing. All are seen as vital to the creation of a dynamic and successful industry in the UK that will require a range of innovative engineering and manufacturing techniques to fully exploit them.

Quantum clocks, which use laser cooled atoms, are expected to a have a significant role working alongside existing technologies to improve vulnerabilities currently associated with GPS based timing systems.

“There is a need for increased accuracy, especially in financial services,” Sir Peter explained. “Today, in the City of London and on Wall Street, complex algorithms perform trades worth billions of pounds, requiring high precision time stamps, which can only be addressed through quantum technology.”

Likewise, the increasing volume of data and the threat to that data posed by hackers means that improved data communications and security are needed.

“Using quantum technology, it will be possible to ensure that data is not tampered with,” Sir Peter asserted.

Importance of collaboration

“In order that we benefit from these new technologies, collaboration is crucial and the UK is lucky that, when it comes to quantum technology, it has a very well connected community,” he continued. “It has certainly benefited our efforts to create a national organisation, especially at a time of austerity when resources remain limited. We have a network of universities, laboratories and industrial partners that are working together to deliver an integrated, national programme to exploit the UK’s excellent research base.”

Both Sir Peter and Dr Lewis expressed surprise at the way in which Government responded to their initial approach.

“When we first approached the Government, I was taken aback but certainly encouraged by its ability to see quantum technologies as an emerging technology,” Sir Peter noted. “It wasn’t fixated on an immediate return on any investment it might make.

“Before we spoke, we had been obliged to carry out a comprehensive SWOT analysis on quantum technology in the UK and what our capabilities were. Our academic capability is certainly impressive and we have been successful at spawning a significant number of university spin-offs and SMEs – just look at the photonics industry in the UK where, by our reckoning, we have more than 1500 companies generating more revenue than the pharmaceuticals industry,” suggested Sir Peter.

The key question was how could the UK develop and create a viable ecosystem capable of supporting a fast growing quantum technology industry?

“That was crucial,” he conceded. “Companies and organisations need to engage with one another. That is an important element within any successful innovative culture because companies need to feed off one another. That type of relationship goes a long way to producing a lot of good science.”

Sir Peter accepted their talks about funding came at a fortuitous time as George Osborne, the Chancellor, had been talking about the importance of turning the UK into a ‘knowledge based’ economy, which would require longer-term investment if great science was to be commercialised successfully.

“The key was getting the industry to talk as one,” Sir Peter noted. “It didn’t matter how many agencies were involved, as long as we worked together. If you look at the US, there are 11 agencies, but they don’t talk to one another – it is a fractured ecosystem.”

Among the key partners in the UK are EPSRC, Innovate UK, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, NPL, GCHQ, the Knowledge Transfer Network and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).

“We have set up a board that focuses on developing a common strategy. It meets monthly, involves all the various interested parties, organises resources and steers the UK’s quantum programme.

“The four hubs have their own advisory boards and half their membership is made up of people from business,” he continued. “Our aim is to establish a coherent government, industry and academic quantum technology community that will, ultimately, provide the UK with a world leading position in the emerging quantum technology market. Create the right infrastructure and we will be able to deliver on the ambitious future opportunities we have identified.”

Recent developments in the laboratory suggest there are real opportunities for the UK in this field of advanced science, suggested Sir Peter.

“What we are looking to do is build an exploitation strategy to put that science to practical use in the real world.”

Among those agencies playing a leading role in the development of quantum technology is the Dstl which is providing considerable financial support.

According to Neil Stansfield, head of Knowledge, Innovation and Futures Enterprise at Dstl: “We are supporting the QMI as quantum technology will lead to high-accuracy navigation systems capable of working even if conventional GPS systems are not available and sensor technologies capable of identifying objects hidden in structures or in the earth.

“Quantum technology has the potential to significantly advance UK defence and security in a range of areas whether timing and navigation or sensing,” suggested Stansfield.

The UK’s National Quantum Technologies programme was set up to support investment in research, innovation, skills and technology demonstration to help business in the UK to commercialise the technology.

“To that end, the programme can offer grants to help companies identify and develop uses and applications for these new technologies across a broad range of markets,” explained Sir Peter.

So is the UK well placed to become a world leader in new quantum technologies?; can the UK, with its high performing research base and network of innovative business, establish a leading position?

It will require sustained Government investment, a dynamic workforce capable of meeting the needs of the industry and the free flow of ideas, people and innovation. But, for once, all the elements do appear to be in place.