Quantum team to build atomic clock, and gravity sensor prototypes

13 Nov 2018: Industry-led effort aims to develop four quantum instruments, each underpinned by photonics technology, within two years.

Industry-led effort aims to develop four quantum instruments, each underpinned by photonics technology, within two years.

UniKLasers, Optocap, Teledyne e2v, and Bay Photonics are among the UK-based photonics companies set to benefit from £20 million in funding to develop new quantum technologies.

With money from the UK’s industrial strategy challenge effort, the Quantum Technologies Pioneer Fund panel selected four industry-led projects, each with the aim of delivering a prototype system within two years.

They include two projects to develop new quantum-encrypted optical communications hardware, one working on a quantum gravity sensor to detect underground objects, and another to build a compact cesium atomic clock.

Announcing the funding at last week’s Quantum Technologies Showcase event in London, Nick Chism, director general of enterprise within the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), said that the selections were a direct response to the earlier Blackett Review, which recommended greater industry involvement and matched private-sector investment in quantum technology development.

At the same event Roger McKinlay, “challenge director” for quantum technologies within the new UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding body, outlined the four projects to receive funding by saying that the aim was to “put the working prototypes in the hands of the user”.

Industry engaged

The four projects, entitled Kairos, 3QN, Gravity, and Agile Quantum Safe Communication, are respectively focused on the development of the cesium atomic clock, satellite-based quantum key distribution (QKD), a gravity sensor to detect buried pipes and cables, and ultra-compact QKD systems based on photonic integrated circuit (PIC) technology.

Running since 2014 with £270 million of central funding, the UK’s National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP) is based around four university-hosted technology “hubs” and close interaction with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). But there has always been a strong emphasis on industrial partnerships, and a key goal of the effort is to see the technology cross over into genuine commercial applications.

The four new projects aim to do exactly that, with McKinlay suggesting that they also demonstrate how the engagement between the technology hubs and industrial partners has already pushed things forward.

“The rise of quantum technologies will bring a huge impact on all our lives,” he added. “In order to secure the UK lead in this area, and make sure that companies based in the UK take a significant share of this opportunity [and create UK jobs], we must continue to work across industry, academia and government to achieve innovation.”

Perhaps most likely to cross over into commercial use first is the gravity sensor being developed under a 12-strong consortium led by the engineering services company RSK. Awarded £6 million, it features photonics expertise in the form of Fraunhofer UK Centre for Applied Photonics, solid-state laser developer UniKLasers, packaging and assembly specialist Optocap, sensor firm Teledyne e2v, and the University of Southampton.

Gravity sensing with cold atoms

The aim is to build and test a new gravity-sensing instrument, based around laser-cooled atoms, that is able to detect buried hazards more effectively than current technologies. Project leader George Tuckwell said in an RSK release:

“Despite our increasing ability to detect and monitor objects that exist on land, in the sea, around buildings or in space, our ability to detect objects beneath the ground has not improved significantly."

“When it comes to attempting to locate a forgotten mineshaft, determine the extent of a sinkhole, or assess the quality of infrastructure, we still often resort to digging or drilling holes. This presents huge economic and societal costs as road networks are dug up, oil wells are dry or brownfield land is left undeveloped.”

The hope is that the quantum sensor will offer double the sensitivity of conventional equipment, and be ten times as fast - ultimately speeding up civil engineering projects such as the construction of the UK’s new “HS2” high-speed rail network.

According to Teledyne e2v, which is involved in three of the four new “pioneer” projects, only 30 per cent of exploratory bore holes drilled to investigate oil and gas deposits are successful - suggesting that a clear gap in the market exists for a quantum gravity sensor offering better detection.

A key component of such a gravity sensor is the narrow-linewidth laser needed to produce the cold atoms. Edinburgh-based UniKLasers is working on that, in particular a 698.4 nm source said to be ideal for cooling strontium atoms. Nearby Optocap, which is part of the ALTER Technology Group, will provide its expertise in frequency-stabilized laser modules.

Cesium clocks and QKD

Teledyne e2v is also the lead contractor on the Kairos project - named after the Ancient Greek word for “the critical moment” – that is aiming to build a miniature atomic clock based around laser-cooled cesium atoms.

Also involving Optocap, the pre-production prototype is intended to provide precise timing for a variety of critical infrastructure services, including reliable energy supply, safe transport links, mobile communications, data networks and electronic financial transactions.

Currently those all rely on Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) for their timing signal. However, GNSS signals are said to be easily disrupted - either accidentally or maliciously - that in extreme cases could stop critical services from functioning.

The other two projects both revolve around QKD development. Led by Cambridge-based Toshiba Research Europe, “Agile Quantum Safe Communication (AQuaSec)” will look to PICs to shrink both the size and cost of the encryption technology. Current QKD systems cost somewhere in the region of £100,000, but Andrew Shields from the company’s Cambridge Research Laboratory says that in large volumes the PIC approach would have the potential to cut the cost by “orders of magnitude”.

Among the partners involved in AQuaSec are the epiwafer foundry IQE, alongside Devon-based Bay Photonics, the University of Bristol spin-out KETS Quantum Security, telecoms giant BT, and NPL.

Teledyne e2v is also involved in the “3QN” project. Led by blockchain and quantum technology development firm ArQit, it will work on new kinds of optical ground receivers that could find use in satellite-based QKD – an area where researchers in China have stolen a march on the rest of the world, albeit with relatively bulky equipment.

News of the four “pioneer” projects came shortly after the UK government announced in its budget statement that the second phase of the NQTP would receive “up to” an additional £235 million in research funding.

Coming after an £80 million tranche was awarded to the four quantum technology hubs, the total is close to the amount that, as optics.org" optics.org reported in September, the program leaders had been anticipating.