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Making the leap into quantum technologies

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Photo of Sir Mark Walport
Prof Sir Mark Walport

Quantum technologies have already contributed to the development of lasers, digital cameras, solar cells, GPS and mobile phones. While these technologies are invisible to the consumer, their impact on our lives will only continue to grow.

A new generation of quantum technologies is now emerging that could allow accurate navigation without the need for GPS; enable detection of buried hazards; provide new methods for imaging the human body without exposure to harmful radiation; and potentially solve problems that would stump existing supercomputers.

The UK is among the world leaders in quantum research, but for the country to fully capitalise on its advantages, greater industry involvement is needed to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Image of an ion trap deviceHistorically, the UK has shown great inventiveness and innovation in the development of new technologies, only for them to be commercialised elsewhere.

A prime example is the atomic clock, which provides precise timing for everything from mobile phone networks to GPS. The first caesium atomic clock – the basis for the international time standard today – was developed at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, London, in 1955. Within a year, the US had caught up and the first commercial atomic clock was unveiled by an American company.

The UK is now capable of taking the lead again, developing a whole new generation of quantum clocks: smaller and cheaper, and even more precise. This could be a game-changer for telecoms, financial services and satellite navigation.

More broadly, the UK Government has invested around £380 million in the five-year National Quantum Technologies Programme. Its goal is to accelerate development, commercialise technologies and train for a skilled workforce.

But we cannot be complacent. Other nations are also investing, and private investment is following.

In my latest report from the Government Office for Science, The Quantum Age: Technological Opportunities, I make the case for continuing the good work of the national programme – but with greater commitment from industry. We must open the door to matched private sector investment and demonstrate the applications of our excellent research through quantum tech innovation centres.

Quantum technologies are here to stay and the UK has a unique opportunity to take the lead and for society to reap the benefits of quantum technologies, such as timekeeping, imaging, sensing, communications and computing.

Follow Sir Mark Walport on Twitter: @uksciencechief

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