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Mon, 13 July 2020

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Building a quantum economy

Building a quantum economy

Professor Kai Bongs, Director | UK National Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology

4 min read Member content

Further investment is needed to help turn world-leading science into commercial opportunities, says Professor Kai Bongs, Director of the UK National Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology

Mine-shafts, pipes, cables and utility infrastructure, and deeper down, old foundations, tunnels, sewers, and sinkholes pose geotechnical risks for infrastructure and brownfield developments. Incredibly, millions of pounds are spent on site investigations for projects like HS2 rail, and huge inefficiencies are caused by digging and roadworks. The utility industry undertakes 1.5 million street works annually to repair, maintain and upgrade its vast network of buried infrastructure.

At the University of Birmingham, I am the Director of an £110 million consortium, the UK National Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology, which is part of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme. Our Hub exploits quantum mechanics to build next-generation sensors for gravity, magnetic fields, rotation, time, THz radiation and quantum light. Part of a £270 million government investment plan, the Hub is moving from laboratory and prototypes thanks to industry collaboration, and we have already received news of a second phase of funding.

The capabilities these sensors offer will be hugely impactful across many engineering sectors. For example, compared to the current commercially available sensor, the gravity sensor being developed by the Quantum Technology Hub will be able to see much deeper into the ground, and, with the help of 3D printing and novel designs for magnetic shielding, will produce incredibly precise detection results. Once the gravity sensor is fully developed and manufactured in volume, engineers will routinely be able to ‘see’ into the ground to examine the underground landscape, and help to prevent disasters arising from undetected sinkholes, and in more routine civil engineering, shorten the length of time for road works.

Our strong industrial links, such as with Network Rail, BP and Teledyne e2v, tie in with our overall objective of building quantum technology that meets the needs of end users. This ensures that the technology will be purpose-built for specific applications, rather than being simply an ‘exhibition’ of physics. An example of this is the development of quantum clocks, which are being built in collaboration with the National Physical Laboratory. These clocks will provide crucial resilience mechanism in a world overly reliant on GNSS networks which faces multiple threats, from malicious attacks like jamming, spoofing or state aggression, to rare but real perils like solar flares and space weather. Data suggests the economic impact of a UK GNSS disruption could be as much as £5.2 billion over a five day period, including on emergency services, road logistics and the maritime industry.

Quantum sensors could support both political and commercial priorities in the UK. Lynchpin infrastructures like HS2, brownfield building to solve the housing crisis, and the upkeep of our crucial utilities, would be made safer, cheaper and faster if we know more about what lies beneath. Next-generation brain imaging will help us respond to public health threats like dementia; 850,000 people already live with it, at a cost of £23 billion per year, forecast to triple by 2040, higher than cancer, heart disease and strokes.

Significant progress has already been made in bringing these technologies to market; so far the Sensors and Metrology Hub has produced 9 patents and 132 records of invention, and established over 200 industry partnerships. This is a great start, but further investment is needed to help turn world-leading science into commercial opportunities.

The development of quantum technology will have an undeniably transformative impact on everyday life, not to mention across huge industry sectors such as transport, civil engineering, communications, computing and even in space. A second chapter in quantum research will quicken technology transfer, support larger field trials, and enable the convening of users and system developers, putting quantum innovation at the heart of the UK economy and securing our global leadership in 21st century science.

The UK National Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology is also being featured in QUEST, the University of Birmingham’s platform for cutting-edge and transformative research. For more information, please visit


Eddie Hughes MP says with the right funding there is potential to bring quantum out of the labs and into industry to deliver real tangible improvements for our citizens and the economy. Read the full article here.

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