Quantum physics may be the domain of scientists, but new advances in the technology will prove useful for us all.

The science that describes the behaviour of nature on the smallest scale can be intimidating and counter-intuitive, even for those who deal with it every day. That being said, our understanding of this tiny world has proven to be as useful as it is strange: in fact, much of our modern technology can trace its roots back to quantum physics.

Groundbreaking technologies – such as semiconductors and lasers – were a result of the so-called first quantum revolution, and have led to everything from modern computing to MRI scanners. So what more could the quantum world have to offer? The answer – judging by recent activity and investment – is a great deal.

The current excitement surrounds our growing ability to exploit two previously elusive quantum effects: superposition and entanglement. Loosely speaking, the former is the concept that a quantum system can exist in multiple states at the same time, as explained famously by Schrödinger’s cat analogy. The latter describes a ‘spooky’ quantum effect whereby two (or more) particles can no longer be thought of as independent, but rather as one connected system. For two entangled particles this means that actions performed on one affects the other, even when they are separated by large distances.

Over the last two decades researchers have developed the ability to repeatedly produce and control these quantum effects. This has led to the emergence of an entirely new scientific field called quantum technology, which seeks to produce devices that promise, once again, to revolutionise our lives.

Early technology roadmaps have outlined many transformative applications, some with a relatively short time to market and others that still require over a decade of research and development. Some of the leading areas are atomic clocks, quantum sensors, quantum communications, quantum enhanced imaging and, of course, quantum computing.

Much of the technology is being driven forward by modern societal challenges. For instance, improving cyber security is a hot topic in today’s world and quantum communication offers a highly coveted tool: the ability to send a message that cannot be hacked. China have grabbed the headlines in this field as they recently launched what is being called the world’s first quantum satellite, which aims to establish hack-proof communications between space and the ground.

Quantum sensors, such as new accelerometers, are also expected to emerge in commercial markets in the near future. These exploit superposition (and/or entanglement) to achieve a higher resolution and sensitivity than current sensors. The basic idea comes from the fact that when a particle is in a superposition state then it becomes very sensitive to changes in its surroundings. This can be a disadvantage if we are trying to control the particle, such as for quantum computing, but it is good news if we are actually interested in the surroundings – in other words, it can be used as a powerful sensor.

One particularly useful application of quantum sensors is for sub-surface imaging, where accurate and fast gravity sensors can be used to build up a 3D picture of the density of the ground beneath you.  Early adopters of this technology are expected to be in the world’s defence, construction and oil and gas sectors.

Another field that quantum technologies will impact is navigation, where accurate quantum accelerometers can be used to enable better navigation without satellites. This is useful for navigating indoors, underwater or in other hostile environments and also mitigates the risk of excessive GPS dependence.

Cambridge Consultants have tackled the challenge of navigation without GPS or radio signals before. The Trace tracking technology uses existing low-power, low-cost sensors to provide accurate information on the location of people indoors. Advances in quantum sensing technologies have the potential to build on this type of work and produce the next-generation of accurate positioning systems.

The quantum technology industry is still in its infancy and major questions exist about how it will look going forward and who the key players will be. However, given the substantial investments in the last couple of years from governments and companies around the world, some say we are witnessing the start of a second quantum revolution.

At Cambridge Consultants we are excited by the latest research and how we can use it to produce the highest-quality products for our clients. With our multi-disciplinary technical staff, and many with a background in quantum physics, we are well placed to extract the most value from emerging quantum technologies and, when the time is right, to exploit the technology in innovative commercial products.

Lewis Woolfson

Lewis is an analyst intern in the Strategy, Innovation and Process group working across the Industrial, Consumer and Energy campaigns. He is in his final year of a masters degree in physics at the University of St Andrews.