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Quantum computers made of superconducting circuits could be the first to outpace conventional computers.

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Europe’s billion-euro quantum flagship hands out first grants

The first phase of Europe’s decadelong, billion-euro program to turn its quantum technology research into commercial products has come into focus. At an event held in Vienna on 29 October, the European Union announced the first €132 million of its quantum flagship initiative will be split between 20 continent-wide consortia over the next 3 years to develop new kinds of quantum sensors, communications, and computers.

Backers hope the investment will keep Europe from being overtaken in a potent new area of technology. “It’s important to start an applications sector to allow industry to grow in Europe,” says Ian Walmsley, of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and a member of the steering group that formulated the flagship. “No doubt it’s growing elsewhere in the world.” But it remains uncertain how the rest of the flagship will be paid for, and whether it will inject life into a fledgling European quantum industry.

Physicists have begun to find commercial applications for the strange laws of quantum mechanics, which allow a subatomic particle to be in two states at the same time and a measurement on one particle to instantly affect another, distant particle. For example, Swiss company ID Quantique, set up in 2001, sells equipment exploiting the quantum properties of photons to create uncrackable encryptions for banks and governments.

Basic research in quantum mechanics has flourished in Europe. But China is spending billions of dollars to commercialize quantum technology, including a satellite to send quantum-encrypted messages through space, launched in 2016—a first step toward a quantum internet. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is considering a $1.3 billion quantum initiative, and U.S. companies including Google, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars to try to build a quantum computer that could outstrip conventional machines on certain tasks.

Such investment has been scarce in Europe, where companies without the huge cash reserves of U.S. tech firms have been reluctant to take risks. The quantum flagship—the third EU flagship research program after ones on graphene and the human brain—is intended to compensate. Without such support, says flagship spokesperson Tommaso Calarco of the Jülich research center in Germany, “the ideas that were developed and are still being developed in Europe could be converted into companies and jobs elsewhere.”

The program was announced in 2016, and grant proposals from 140 consortia—each a mixture of academics and industrialists—were received earlier this year, before being whittled down to the 20 winners across five categories. Seven of the winners will pursue basic science while many of the remaining consortia will develop commercial prototypes. Four winners are in the category of quantum communication and include a Dutch-led proposal to develop a blueprint for a quantum internet. Two more will plunge into the race for quantum supremacy, which means executing a specific algorithm that the best classical computers can’t handle.

These groups might find themselves trailing Google, which aims to reach that milestone either later this year or early next using quantum bits, or qubits, made in superconducting circuits, says John Martinis, the company’s head of quantum hardware in Santa Barbara, California. Thomas Monz of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, who coordinates one of the European consortia, says his group’s bid for quantum supremacy, which uses trapped ions as qubits, is based on an algorithm that will be more “meaningful”—in other words, potentially useful—than Google’s.

A full-scale quantum computer is decades off, however. Among the consortia developing more tangible quantum devices, Florian Schreck of the University of Amsterdam and colleagues are aiming to make a portable and easy-to-use optical clock that could help telecom companies end their dependence on potentially unreliable GPS signals. Meanwhile, Christoph Nebel of the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Solid State Physics in Freiburg, Germany, and co-workers are working on a prototype room-temperature device to supply the spin-polarized molecules needed for magnetic resonance imaging machines.

These grants amount to just a fraction of the initiative’s €1 billion commitment. Calarco says the format of the next funding round could combine calls for fresh proposals with continued support for existing projects. But where the money will come from is in question. Funding is supposed to be split 50-50 between the European Commission and member states. But unlike other flagships, the member state funding does not end up in a central pot. Instead, these funds are earmarked for national programs that merely share the aims of the quantum flagship. Given the complexity of this arrangement, Calarco is hoping the budget for the next EU research framework, to be decided next year, will contain all of the remaining €850 million needed for the quantum flagship. “I am working hard towards that goal,” he says.

An additional uncertainty is how Brexit—the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union in 2019—will affect the flagship. Brexit could remove a key funding source, although the United Kingdom could strike a deal like Switzerland, which pays to participate in EU research frameworks. But Brexit’s effects on grantees will be delayed: The U.K. groups within the 20 winning consortia will participate for the full 3-year initial period. “We don’t know what form Brexit will take,” Calarco says. “So we have 3 years to sort this out.”