Quantum sensing covers motion – including acceleration, rotation, and gravity; electric and magnetic fields; and imaging. With such fundamental measurements there are many possible application areas, including aerospace and transport, civil engineering and medicine.
Sensing will benefit from the Government’s UK National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP) fund of £400m. with investment in the National Quantum Technology Hub in Sensors and Metrology led by Birmingham University and the Quantic hub led by Glasgow University, together with the significant tranche of £70m for the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. To see a return on this investment Government will need to ensure that the export path for industries is as efficient as possible.
Many of the different quantum technologies can be used in diverse areas. For example, cold atom technologies, which typically use superposition, are used for sensing applications. Cross-fertilisations like this have promoted the rapid development of technologies.
Cold atom technologies involve cooling atoms in a vacuum chamber to a few microkelvins above absolute zero. In this state, the atoms are sensitive to motion, particularly acceleration (gravity) and rotation. Gravity sensors based on this are able to provide a view underground on brownfield building sites and roads, allowing faster survey times with decreased operational overheads. They can also be used in airborne applications for mineral exploration.
Integrating acceleration and rotation sensors creates inertial measurement systems with more than two orders of magnitude improvement over today’s implementations. There is also the possibility of developing inertial navigation systems that could reduce reliance on GNSS satellites. Several Innovate UK projects are investigating this area and will soon publish the results and detail the next steps.
Quantum imaging sensors have also been developed that can detect single photons, allowing range gating with impressive timing accuracy. Applications include collision avoidance and low-energy medical imaging.
Another development has been the use of quantum principles in magnetic field sensing. Both cold atom and nitrogen vacancy (NV) in diamond have been used for this purpose. NV is an important technology as it works at room temperature and, apart from improving magnetometers, it is already showing promise as a way to improve magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, particularly for examining the brain and heart, by reducing the magnetic field created. NV also paves the way to decreased size, weight, power and cost (SWaP-C) of MRIs compared with equivalent scanning technologies.
One of the benefits of quantum sensing is the improvement in sensitivity over classical systems. The future for quantum sensing is promising and the renewed government investment and increasing interest from industry provide the UK with the capability to continue as a world leader.