NICK LAKIN takes a trip into the realm of quantum technology, and meets the Lancaster University scientists who have their fingers on the quantum pulse...
Not the easiest of subjects to get your head around. And it’s fair to say some scientists have a hard time defining it, too.
A physicist friend of mine tells me that no-one fully understands quantum theory, yet it’s accepted as fact.
Quantum technology is described as a new field of physics and engineering, which transitions some of the stranger features of quantum mechanics into practical applications such as quantum computing, quantum cryptography, quantum simulation, quantum metrology, quantum sensing, and quantum imaging.
Already the mind boggles, but I wanted to find out more about Lancaster University’s new Quantum Technology Centre, what it does, and how it aims to lead the race internationally in this relatively new scientific field.
Professor Yuri Pashkin is a director of the centre and Dr Mark Rushforth is head of the university’s business partnerships and enterprise in physical sciences.
Both meet me outside the new department on the university’s campus - which includes more than £4m worth of “clean room” – where the magic happens.
Before we enter the clean zone, Prof Pashkin explains a bit about the background of quantum theory, how it was developed in the early 20th century, and its practical implications today.
Essentially the new centre will be using quantum technology to develop chips that will have a range of benefits for medicine, computing, sensing, energy and security.
Prof Pashkin said: “Using the electron-beam writer we can create a pattern in the resist (layer) that is later used for the fabrication of nanoscale devices on the chip.
“We can fabricate various types of superconductor or semiconductor devices with a feature size down to 10nm, and it can take anything between a day and a week to produce one chip.”
Before stepping into the first clean room, which has no more than 1,000 dust particles per cubic foot, we don lab gear to protect the room from the dust we’re carrying on our clothes and skin.
Prof Pashkin shows me the state of the art machines used to fabricate the chips, with some individual pieces of kit valued at £1m.
“You can use these nanoelectronic devices as quantum two-level systems to construct quantum bits,” explains Prof Pashkin.
“You can use qubits as building blocks for quantum computing in that they can be used to build quantum processors.”
“Computers built of quantum bits would be much more powerful, you can do calculations in one hour that would take one million years with standard computers.
“Quantum mechanics tells us about some none classical properties of the quantum objects, and this can be used for different types of applications.”
“Many ideas are still just on paper, but there is progress being made on quantum communication and security, where the quantum nature of information makes any attempt at hacking or interception detectable, and the use of a special quantum key ensures that the transmission of information becomes completely secure.”
We step into the second clean room which has fewer that 100 dust particles per cubic foot and Prof Pashkin shows me one of the produced chips.
“There are many unknowns in quantum technology and the quantum states are quite fragile, meaning we must take utmost care to protect them. This dictates that we should engineer the measurement system very carefully, so that the quantum states live longer and can be used for practical purposes,” he said.
“There is continuing progress with the first generation of the quantum technology applications when it comes to energy production, including the development of solar cells using highly efficient multi-layer structures in photovoltaic cells, improving the efficiency of solar power conversion into electricity.”
Leaving the lab I visit another section of the university that has received very little attention – the ultra low temperature laboratory, where experiments are carried out at extremely low temperatures.
We’re talking temperatures of just above absolute zero, −273.15 °C (−459.67 °F), bizarrely making parts of this lab the coldest on the planet.
On leaving that day I must say I came out with more questions than I had before I went in, but what struck me the most was the university’s passion and drive for this type of new technology, and the potential of it becoming a world leader in this field.
Mark Rushworth said: “The university has made a significant investment in the Quantum Technology Centre, which forms part of the top physics department in the country for research.
“However, this is just the first phase. Our aim is to bring in additional funding to grow the centre into a world-leading facility.
“We believe the centre has the potential to become a significant driver for the future regional economy as we work with existing businesses to help them gain commercial advantages through our research, as well as attracting additional high-tech firms, and jobs, to the region.”
The university is now seeking additional funding for a range of activities including a new building, cutting-edge equipment, salaries for researchers, doctoral students, business support services with facilities access (to help companies to commercially exploit our research gains), basic research, applied research, Technology incubation/ new venture creation (spin-out companies)and high level skills programme.