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Converting quantum promises into commercial realities

30 May 2021
Taken from the 2021 Physics World Quantum Science & Technology Briefing. You can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

Susan Curtis reports from the inaugural Quantum West conference, where speakers convened as part of SPIE’s Photonics West event and discussed how quantum technologies could deliver commercial solutions in the years and decades to come

Google quantum electronics
Quantum wiring The 54-qubit Sycamore chip developed by Google requires thousands of electronics components and metres of coaxial cabling to control and read out the superconducting qubits. More integrated systems will be crucial to further scale-up quantum computers. (Courtesy: Erik Lucero / Google)

We’ve all heard about the promise of quantum technologies to transform business and industry, whether it be for more secure communications networks or vastly more powerful computation. But what is needed to translate experimental quantum research into commercial success, and when can we expect it to happen?

According to speakers at the inaugural Quantum West conference, the transition from lab-based R&D towards market-ready solutions is already under way. While the headline-grabbing applications of quantum computing and the quantum Internet remain a longer-term bet, prototypes and products are already appearing in other areas of quantum technologies. One example is atomic clocks. Originally developed by the research community to provide more precise timing standards, the focus is now on re-engineering compact versions for use in high-speed mobile communications, synchronizing financial transactions, and other situations where accurate and resilient timekeeping offers a business advantage.

Applications for quantum sensors are also emerging. One notable example presented during the conference is a gravity sensor developed by Muquans, a French spin-off. Based on a Newtonian free-fall experiment in which a cloud of rubidium atoms cooled close to absolute zero is used as the test mass, Muquans’ system integrates all the key components into a single unit that is robust and reliable enough to be deployed in the field for geophysical monitoring – including on the slopes of Mount Etna.

“I sometimes hear the question about what will be the first real-life application of quantum technologies,” Muquans chief executive Bruno Desruelle told the Quantum West audience. “Well, there are already some quantum instruments that are in service now. We have built more than 10 units and we really believe that quantum technology offers a very interesting competitive advantage for gravity measurements.”

While the Muquans instrument is aimed mainly at the scientific community, other sensors are being developed for a mass market. As an example, the UK start-up QLM has demonstrated a gas sensor that exploits photon quantum statistics to detect methane emissions. Such a sensor could replace the manual sniffer tests currently used in oil and gas exploration to spot leaks of this greenhouse gas, and QLM chief executive Murray Reed says the company is set to produce handheld units costing less than £1000 within the next few months. The same technology could also be used to monitor emissions of carbon dioxide.

quantum gravity sensors

Gateway to growth

The idea that early implementations of quantum systems for specific applications will pave the way for more ambitious commercial development is at the heart of the UK’s National Quantum Technology Programme (NQTP). In his keynote address, Peter Knight, who serves on the NQTP advisory board, described its approach: “We identified a kind of funnel of what we’re able to do in the very long term – for example, in quantum computing – and in the near term where we can pull out commercial and strategic value en route to achieving that long-term goal.”

The programme, which was among the first government-sponsored initiatives to recognize and encourage commercial opportunities for quantum technologies, identified four key areas where quantum technologies are likely to play an important role: sensing and timing, imaging, communications, and simulation and computing. For each area, it mapped out the commercial outcomes that could be achieved for each one over different timescales. In quantum communications, for example, a demonstrator project has already shown that quantum key distribution can be deployed in a standard fibre network, while ongoing NQTP-funded research focuses on developing quantum-resistant algorithms that will be needed to prevent attacks from next-generation quantum computers.

Matt Langione, a partner at the technology analytics firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG), delved deeper into the likely evolution of quantum computing, and its resulting market value, over the next 20 years. BCG’s analysts compared the business opportunities that more computational power would bring with the hardware and software innovations needed to deliver it – whether through improvements to classical computation or the introduction of quantum-powered solutions.

Within the next three to five years, BCG’s analysis suggests that early quantum processors with fewer than 1000 qubits, capable of tasks such as error mitigation and data compression, could deliver commercial value in four industry sectors: finance, pharmaceuticals, materials, and computational fluid dynamics simulations used in the automotive and aerospace industries. In this initial phase, Langione believes that the financial benefit for those four industries could reach a few billion dollars.

Further ahead, more sophisticated quantum computers – ones that exploit some level of error correction – will lead to a phase that Langione describes as offering a “broad quantum advantage”. Such fault-tolerant quantum computers are expected to emerge in a decade or so, and could be used in simulations that speed up materials design and reduce risk in financial trading. In the process, they might boost the overall commercial benefit to $25–50bn.

Beyond that, from about 2030, quantum computers with full-scale fault tolerance could solve the kind of problems that would completely transform the commercial outcomes from these four industries – for example by enabling the discovery of completely new drugs and materials, or allowing banks to make the most efficient use of their capital. At that point, Langione predicts that the market value generated by quantum computers would reach hundreds of billions of dollars.

Engineering a quantum future

Such views may seem optimistic, particularly when current research efforts focus on scaling up quantum processors from mere tens of qubits to the hundreds and thousands required to build fault-tolerant quantum computers. Indeed, a major emphasis of the talks at Quantum West was the urgent need to engineer practical and scalable systems for operating such complex quantum systems. Underlining the scale of the challenge was Google’s Eric Ostby, who revealed that at least 8000 additional components are currently needed to control and read out the 54 qubits in the company’s latest quantum chip.

More generally, engineering any practical quantum system will mean replacing today’s intricate experimental set-ups with robust and reliable plug-and-play units. Key to the success of the Muquans gravimeter, for example, is a bespoke laser technology that replaces optical components carefully arranged on an optical table with a solid-state frequency-doubling architecture that offers greater stability as well as easy integration with standard telecoms components.

This being Photonics West, many of the speakers focused on the crucial importance of photonics technologies for quantum applications. Lasers, for example, are widely used to manipulate quantum states, and over the last few years many devices have emerged with the narrow linewidths and wide tunability needed for quantum experiments. Even so, Scott Davis, chief executive of laser manufacturer Vescent Photonics, was candid about the shortfalls of the current generation of these devices. “There’s a gap between current laser reality and what the quantum system engineers want,” he said. “They are looking for something like a telecom package that’s cheap and fully integrated, while today’s devices only operate at certain wavelengths and are still really only designed for use in the lab.”

Part of the problem for companies such as Vescent is that there is no clear roadmap to guide their product development efforts. With this in mind, the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C), an organization that aims to support the growth of the US quantum industry, organized a workshop in September 2020 to discuss the future photonics requirements for quantum applications.

“One of the big takeaways is that the path forward for lasers for quantum is not so clear,” noted Davis, who chaired the workshop. “It’s a complicated space right now, with lots of different applications calling for different wavelengths and laser properties.” As a result, QED-C has launched an initiative to identify the technology and market intersections that should be tackled first.

Meanwhile, Davis is convinced that the best way to reduce the current market uncertainty is to get involved with academic research projects. Working in partnership with quantum scientists helps laser manufacturers to design devices that meet the specific technical requirements, from which they can engineer more integrated products that can be sold to equipment manufacturers. This has allowed Vescent to create, for example, an integrated laser-based system that has already been deployed in quantum sensors and atomic clocks.

Working together we can do so much more than working apart

Peter Knight

Many other speakers stressed the need for strong collaboration between industry, academia and government programmes to drive early commercialization efforts. This approach has already been formalized in some parts of the world, including the UK. Knight described the NQTP as building a “quantum alliance” between academic research groups (which focus on creating scientific knowledge), large and small companies (which can identify market opportunities and build practical solutions), and government (which functions as a sponsor and early adopter of quantum technologies). A measure of its success, Knight said, is that in a recent funding round for larger projects, 63 companies were involved in bids for the available £84m, and these businesses had themselves raised an additional £109m for quantum technology development over the last two years. “The appetite for working on this and translating the technology into the market is really there,” he said. “Working together we can do so much more than working apart.”

This June we will bring you Quantum Week – a series of free-to-attend scientific presentations in the field of quantum science and technology. Presentations will be on topics including quantum processors, the ethics of quantum computing and computational advantage. Find out more and register today.

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