The power of quantum: new technologies could be a billion dollar industry for the UK

Amelia Heathman
Professor Patrick Gill and Dr Helen Margolis working on one of NPL's trapped ion optical clocks: NPL

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is leading a new national activity to engage UK industry in emerging quantum technologies.

The new programme wants to work with business leaders to encourage them to invest in the growing industry and ensure that future government investment into quantum technology is focused on the best opportunities for the UK economy.

The NPL says that quantum technology could become a potential billion dollar industry for the UK.

What is quantum technology?

Quantum technology, such as quantum computers, derives from quantum theory. This was one of the most significant breakthroughs of the 20th Century.

Quantum physics, part of quantum theory, sees solid matter as transient, such as a beam of light. The abstract effects of this thinking have increased our physical understanding of the world around us.

As a result, it has revolutionised the electronics industry. Quantum theory has helped us to develop the flash memory on mobile phones and computers, superconductors in MRI machines in hospitals, and even the lasers in barcode scanners.

How will the new programme work?

The new programme is building on previous initiatives in the UK which has spearheaded the growth of quantum technologies in the UK.

In 2013, the UK government announced a £270 million National Quantum Technology Programme which provided investment for research and development into quantum technologies, primarily in universities.

The investment began in 2014 to take place over a five year period, set to finish in 2019. Now, decisions need to be made about the next steps for quantum technologies and whether the UK government is going to continue its investment.

As CEO of the NPL, Peter Thompson is going to be leading this coordinated activity around the potential of quantum technologies in the UK.

“In the UK, we need to make sure that we’re not just scientific leaders but we lead on commercialisation so many of our companies can reap the benefits of quantum technologies,” explains Thompson.

An optical atomic clock, one example of how quantum technology is pushing boundaries in timekeeping. (NPL )

Listening in to the potential of quantum technologies

The NPL, with Thompson at the helm, is going to be working alongside EPSRC and Innovate UK on the national activity. Together, he says, they are going to work with all the major industries, such as pharmaceuticals, financial sector and transport, to discuss the challenges they have.

Then it’s about working with the quantum technology community to link these challenges with the developing quantum technology that could solve them.

For instance, how quantum could be used in the oil and gas sector.

“They have significant challenges around understanding what’s happening with pipes under the sea,” he says.

“Quantum technologies, like sensors, might help them understand where they might have issues in a more precise and cost-effective manner.”

Finally, Thompson will report back to Mark Walport, the government’s head of UK Research and Innovation (UKIR) which is responsible for public funding for research and innovation.

“It’s a big task, but it’s very exciting,” says Thompson.

Why is it important that the UK invests in quantum technologies?

Put simply, quantum technologies have the capacity to change and improve everything we do, from computing to imaging, to sensors and driverless cars.

It’s important that the UK gets in on the influx of quantum technologies. Across the world, China is hoping to become the leader in the space, with its National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science set to receive $16 billion in funding over the next five years.

In addition, companies like Microsoft, IBM and Google are all racing to build quantum computers, which harness the power of quantum technology.

Google recently revealed it had created a 72-qubit computer. The tech giant’s scientists are hoping that this will bring it to the point of quantum supremacy; whereby the quantum computer will be able to carry out calculations that outstrip anything a classical, i.e normal, computer would be able to do.

But quantum technologies are challenging, not least because they are difficult for consumers to understand. This is what Thompson will focus on in particular.

“There could be a number of reasons why major industries would or would not get behind quantum technologies,” he says.

“Some of it may be that it hasn’t been explained to them clearly where the benefits may lie. It could be that it’s not going to deliver in their time frame.

“So we need a discussion around where these exciting technologies will deliver outcomes for major industries, over the next five, 10 and 15 years.”