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Quantum technologies could help improve measurement devices, such as atomic clocks. Here, the first atomic clock in 1949.

Quantum technologies could help improve measurement devices, such as atomic clocks. Here, the first atomic clock in 1949.

U.S. Library of Congress

U.K. bids for a lead in quantum technologies

The United Kingdom announced today the creation of a £120 million network of four “quantum technology hubs”—involving 17 universities and 132 companies—to create new, commercially viable technologies based on quantum mechanics. Each of the hubs, led by the universities of Birmingham, Glasgow, Oxford, and York, will focus on different applications of quantum technology. “This exciting new Quantum Hubs network will push the boundaries of knowledge and exploit new technologies, to the benefit of health care, communications, and security,” said Greg Clark, minister for universities, science, and cities, at an event at the University of Birmingham today.

Although U.K. research has had a nominally flat budget over the past few years, the government has launched a few new initiatives, among them a 5-year, £270 million National Quantum Technologies Programme, announced last year. Under this program, which includes £190 million in new money, the government called for outline proposals for quantum hubs. In July, these were narrowed down to a short list of eight, which were then peer-reviewed.

“We’re really pleased now to get the money and get started,” says one of the winners, Tim Spiller of the University of York, who heads the new hub focusing on quantum communications. The hub’s £24 million in funding will be spent not on bricks-and-mortar but to equip and pay for research at universities and in industry. The York-centered hub involves seven other universities and nine companies, including Toshiba and British Telecom, as well as the National Physical Laboratory. Of the four, “we’re a relatively compact and tightly focused hub,” Spiller says.

The often bizarre properties of quantum mechanical systems have been studied extensively in the lab for decades, but few products have resulted. Now, countries other than the United Kingdom are investing heavily in turning lab results into marketable systems. “The U.K. has a history of not doing that well,” Spiller says. “We are going to do something about it.” He mentions a recent demonstration by Hewlett-Packard’s laboratories in Bristol, U.K., of a quantum communications system to communicate securely over a distance of a meter or two, which could be used to make transactions from a smart phone to an ATM. One of the York hub’s 5-year goals, he says, is to “take work like that and turn it into something that would be usable.” 

The hub led by the University of Glasgow will develop quantum sensing and imaging, while the University of Oxford will concentrate on quantum computing and simulation. The University of Birmingham hub focuses on quantum sensing and metrology. It will use supercooled atoms as ultraprecise sensors to measure gravity, rotation, magnetic field, time, frequency, and other variables. Birmingham’s Kai Bongs, who will lead the effort, envisions a “U.K. quantum valley where industry can flourish and develop an appropriate ecosystem.”

Bongs and his partners hope to demonstrate devices such as gravity sensors that can detect underground pipes and cables accurately and miniature atomic clocks to monitor broadband connections and financial transactions, which require precise timing. “Companies are very hungry for atom devices,” Bongs says. “We might see products coming out in the 5 years.”