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Not immaterial: Why the UK must play to its strengths in quantum technology

Policy@Manchester

6 min read Partner content

The UK Science and Technology Framework has recently been announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, with Quantum Technologies (QTs) identified as one of five critical technologies. But what is needed to realise this vision – and should the UK invest everywhere, or target its areas of expertise? Professor Richard Curry, from The University of Manchester, outlines how the country can take a leading role in materials for quantum technology, and how government can make this goal a reality.

Alongside the framework, the Spring budget included £2.5 billion investment in QTs over the next 10-years, to be delivered by a new Quantum Strategy. This builds upon the UK’s £1 billion National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP), established in 2014.

With such political prominence and investment, QTs are clearly expected to impact on our lives and the nation, and their development is going to bring both opportunities and challenges. The opportunity is to harness not only what the QTs themselves promise – delivering advances in sensing and imaging, communications and timing, and computing beyond anything non-QTs could ever provide – but also to build a vibrant ecosystem around QTs that creates industrial growth and national prosperity. A challenge is that the UK is not alone in this aim. Internationally, the UK’s investment is dwarfed by declared existing investment in China ($15 billion), for example. The UK needs to therefore ensure it plays to its strengths if it is to be a ‘QT superpower’.

A material solution

One such strength is the UK’s internationally leading record of materials development, spanning photonics (a £14.5 billion UK sector) through to pharmaceuticals (£40 billion). To date, the NQTP has heavily leveraged the materials ecosystem around photonics, and also those of the semiconductor industry; the latter also being one of the five critical technologies identified within the Science and Technology Framework and the focus of a strategy review. As QT development becomes more advanced, however, it is the availability of advanced materials specially developed for QTs that is a cause of major concern. These advanced materials are required at the heart of the quantum systems, in the surrounding environment in which they operate, and in enabling connectivity between QT systems to other quantum and non-quantum technologies.

To make further significant progress in QT development, and retain an internationally leading position, we cannot rely on the existing set of advanced materials to deliver the capability required. As an example, some of the most demanding material challenges surround the realisation of quantum computing, where solutions will provide substantial commercial opportunities. These challenges include:

  • Improved and new characterisation methods to more clearly understand and mitigate the loss of quantum information during operation
  • Enhanced material purity and interface control to enable better control of interactions at the atomic level
  • Discovery of new materials systems that are robust to, and support the scaling of, QT at operating temperatures that do not require restrictive cooling infrastructure.

Presently, a number of candidate materials are vying to become the system of choice for quantum computer ‘qubits’ – the counterpart to the binary ‘bit’ in conventional computing. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages, and the discovery of new systems has the potential to provide a paradigm shift in QT development. However, whichever approach is eventually adopted it will require sophisticated materials science to get it to work at scale.

Investing where we can, collaborating where we cannot

Fortunately, the UK has a vibrant body of internationally-leading materials expertise on which to draw. These include those in national bodies, such as the National Physical Laboratory and the Henry Royce Institute, our great university sector, and within small and medium sized industry through to multi-national companies. The recent funding (£630k) by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) of the Materials for Quantum Network (M4QN) – in which The University of Manchester is a leading partner – has provided a mechanism for the NQTP to access and connect broad areas of this talent resource. It is, however, essential that materials research itself, focused on the specific needs of QTs, is deeply embedded within the NQTP if the UK is to remain competitive.

The UK must not isolate itself from other international quantum programmes, with ~$30 billion of declared international investment by 2022. The €1 billion European Quantum Flagship and QuantERA programmes are driving collaboration across Europe. Within the United States a significant variety of initiatives are underway, many coordinated by the National Quantum Initiative, including dedicated materials programmes such as the $115 million Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems Center at Fermilab. This focused quantum materials centre alone has comparable funding to the entire budget (£100 million) for the five EPSRC quantum technology hubs currently soliciting proposals.

With scientifically leading quantum programmes also underway in Canada and Australia, as the UK looks to deliver on the international ambitions of the Science and Technology Framework, engaging our researchers via international cooperation is of mutual benefit and will allow them to remain at the fore of developments. Ensuring mechanisms are put in place to enable this, under the guidance of the Trusted Research and Innovation framework, would be timely – and indeed, essential – in maintaining a leading quantum programme.

Where do we want to be – and how do we get there?

The ultimate aim, beyond the creation of QTs and ensuring ‘sovereign capability’ in this transformative field, is the creation of a quantum ecosystem within the UK that drives investment and prosperity. This aim is realistic if we build on the foundations established by the NQTP, draw upon the existing supporting photonics industry, and harness our advanced materials capability – especially that which aligns with the semiconductor industry which itself is the focus of a review and draft national strategy. Evidence of this can, for example, be seen in the growing investment and activity in quantum computing at the Sci-Tec Daresbury site in the North-West of the UK. Home of the UKRI Daresbury Laboratory, the site has recently been chosen as the European site by PSIQuantum for its advanced research and development (R&D) centre, supported by £9 million investment from the UK Government. This complements the existing £210 million partnership at the site between IBM and the STFC Hartree Centre that brings together innovative research and development on artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing.

This regional concentration of internationally leading QT industry-based R&D provides a focus around which a wider ecosystem can be built, drawing on the world leading research base provided by local universities including The University of Manchester, the home of advanced materials and the Henry Royce Institute. These and our other UK universities also offer the ability to provide the skills training programmes to ensure that the talent pipeline that cuts across QT and the supporting sectors of materials, computer science and engineering. Other key sectors will also benefit. For example, QTs have the potential to revolutionise decision making processes (tackling more complex problems more quickly), which will impact the service industries that account for 79% of total UK economic output.

To enable the UK to reach the goals embedded within the Quantum Strategy, policymakers and industry must ensure the country harnesses the opportunities at hand. These include:

  • Embedding advanced materials expertise within the NQTP, leveraging the substantial capital investment within UK academia that supports this
  • Building on and accelerating the formation of a regional nexus centred around internationally leading industrial investment in QT.
  • Strategic engagement with international programmes, recognising that these will draw talent and innovation to the UK and support our own sovereign programmes.
  • Ensuring that we invest in the development of a future workforce with the skills sets necessary to support a leading QT ecosystem.

Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.

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