Quantum mechanics began as curiosity-driven university research into fundamental physics, and now drives advances in everything from computing, communications, mining and medicine to finance.
By Wilson da Silva
BELOW THE SIZE of atoms, the world functions strangely: particles can be waves and vice versa, and can exchange information without traversing space.
Known as quantum mechanics, these strange phenomena are embedded in technologies we take for granted, like computer memory, lasers and solar cells.
Now, decades of persistent work by university science in Australia and overseas is ushering in the second quantum revolution, which by 2040 could be a $4 billion sector and create 16,000 jobs.
“Quantum technology – harnessing the strangest effects in quantum physics as resources – will be as transformational in the 21st century as harnessing electricity was in the 19th,” says physicist Prof Michael Biercuk, director of the Quantum Control Lab at the University of Sydney.
A race towards supercomputing
Biercuk’s lab is a node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQUS) one of six such university-led centres in Australia either wholly or partly focused on quantum technologies.
EQUS itself is a partnership between five universities – Sydney, Macquarie, Queensland, Western Australia and the Australian National University (ANU) – along with Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group (DST) and industry partners like Microsoft and Lockheed Martin.
Another 20 Australian research institutions and 14 universities work in the field, along with 16 private companies – either university spin-offs or offshoots of overseas giants like Microsoft or IBM, all part of the quantum revolution looking to bring quantum technologies to market.
Silicon Quantum Computing (SQC), a spin-off of University of New South Wales (UNSW) research, aims to build a full-scale quantum computer in silicon. With the world’s $530 billion semiconductor industry based on silicon since the 1950s, SQC is thought to be a strong contender to develop the first commercially viable quantum computer.
UNSW is also the home of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T), a collaboration of almost 200 researchers across six universities – UNSW, Melbourne, Queensland, Griffith, Sydney, ANU and University of Technology Sydney (UTS) – as well as DST, the Australian Signals Directorate and another 17 universities and four corporate partners overseas.
“A quantum computer would be able to solve problems in minutes that would otherwise take thousands of years,” says Prof Michelle Simmons, head of CQC2T and a former Australian of the Year, who also sits on SQC’s board.
This could include the simulation of new materials, financial risk analysis, optimising speech, facial and object recognition for self-driving cars, looking at optimising aircraft design, or targeting drug development to a patient’s DNA, she says.
Simmons, an ex-research fellow at the University of Cambridge, was attracted to the Australian university system by its openness to pursuing challenging science. “I wanted to build something that could prove to be useful,” she recalls. “Australia offered the freedom of independent fellowships and the ability to work on large-scale projects.”
BOLD SCIENCE FROM THE QUANTUM REVOLUTION
Accelerated by university research, the quantum revolution goes far beyond computers.
Secret scanners on the seafloor
Researchers at the University of Adelaide are working to create tiny atomic detectors, known as quantum magnetometers. Anchored to the sea floor, these could detect the passage of nearby submarines and alert coastal defences.
“Submarines are giant metal objects, so they’ve got a magnetic field associated with them,” says physicist Prof Andre Luiten.
“The great thing about these detectors is they have no power requirements, they’re just atoms in a glass cell. Changes in the strength of the magnetic field at each of numerous quantum detectors on the seabed allows us to determine the speed and direction of the submarine.”
Essential to both military and civilian networks, cryptography relies on scrambling data with complex mathematical formulae that take decades of computer time to crack. In 2006, ANU physicists were the first to commercialise quantum-enhanced cybersecurity solutions, creating Quintessence Labs.
Problem is, quantum cryptography works best over short distances and on secure fibre networks. So ANU physicists at the Department of Quantum Science are developing a quantum-encrypted laser communications system that would allow quantum cryptography via satellite.
These would depend on ‘quantum memories’ — also being developed at ANU — that capture and store information encoded in laser beams without reading or tampering with the data, keeping its quantum cryptography state intact. Snapping up just 5% of the market with quantum-enhanced cybersecurity and network technologies would, by 2040, generate $820 million in annual revenue and 3300 new jobs in Australia, according to the May 2020 Growing Australia’s Quantum Technology Industry roadmap.
Quantum sensing is already delivering dazzling applications in healthcare and medicine, such as enabling early disease detection and the imaging of human biology with exquisite precision, relying on the quantum effect of fluorescent nano-diamonds. A leading player is the ARC Centre of Excellence in Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP), a consortium led by the universities of Adelaide, Macquarie, RMIT, Griffith and UNSW.
“We ask questions at the nanoscale of biological life because it’s at the nanoscale where we see the inner workings of cells,” says the University of Adelaide’s Prof Mark Hutchinson, director of CNBP. “It is at the nanoscale that we can observe life begin, watch the triggers of pain be activated, and observe disease evolve. And that’s delivering really bold science.”