The UK and other countries are building a vibrant quantum technology ecosystem that soon needs to become self-sustaining. Will addressing the “quantum technology packaging challenge” more rapidly create a quantum economy that delivers the benefits of Quantum 2.0? A blog by William Hamlyn, Laura Wright and Ben Metcalf.
Key takeaway points:
- Progress in quantum technology will be faster if companies can leverage the developments of others.
- Companies in the quantum technology ecosystem are therefore turning their attention to the “packaging challenge”.
- Taking up this challenge can drive innovation and help build confidence that this type of technology can be successfully productised.
Quantum technology, in particular the ongoing push towards a second quantum revolution — or Quantum 2.0 — promises to extend our capabilities and sensibilities far beyond what technologies founded on classical physics can achieve.
Some of these technologies have already been “packaged” to the extent that they can be taken out of the lab and demonstrated in the field, with the potential to transform sectors of industry.
In infrastructure and natural resource management, for example, micro-gravity sensors based on atom interferometry can enable subsurface mapping and monitoring of anything from pipes/cables to carbon that has been captured underground.
In medicine, ultra-sensitive magnetic field sensors built from SQUIDs or optically pumped media have demonstrated new modes of non-invasive imaging within the brain.
But many quantum technologies primarily exist as bench setups in the labs of university spin-out companies. This is true especially for optics- or ion-based devices that directly leverage quantum entanglement, including many ways of realising the holy grail of quantum technology, the quantum computer.
Whilst the first market applications are starting to emerge, the reality is that many of the quantum technologies being developed by start-ups will not be ready for wider market adoption for several years. After much investment, numerous engineering challenges still stand in the way until these can become off-the-shelf products.
Quantum 2.0 — Investing for independence
The UK was an early mover in launching a nationwide effort with a significant investment in the National Quantum Technologies Programme to begin translating its world-leading quantum science into commercial quantum technology.
The first round of the UK programme ran from 2014–2019 and saw £400 million invested primarily in University-led hubs , but the success of these also directly spawned a multitude of quantum technology-focussed start-ups.
The EU and other countries followed suit, and quantum technologies have also enjoyed a multi-year Venture Capital investment boom, particularly in the USA . By now, there exists a rich ecosystem of quantum technology start-ups both in the UK and abroad. Quantum technologies are also researched for many security and defence applications.
The second phase of the UK programme began in 2020, with £450 million of further funding expected, including up to £1 million investment from Innovate UK for high risk, high return quantum technology projects with defined commercial output .
With these initiatives, the ecosystem is now at a critical juncture. The intent of the UK programme now is to foster a step-change in private investment in this burgeoning industry to enable it to become self-sustaining. The challenge is how to bootstrap this self-perpetuating quantum economy when many of its products may be years away from wide commercial adoption.
Part of the answer to this challenge comes from increasing collaboration and support between the many different quantum technology companies that have emerged, which is one of the main drivers behind the National Quantum Computing Centre . Others propose that, akin to the history of classical computers, lift-off will come from finding early commercial applications that will fund successive rounds of quantum technology development .
Success will also critically depend on the ability of new companies to trade their technologies with each other. No single company can deliver any of the more ambitious visions for what quantum technology has to offer and instead will rely on a broad range of other companies in an ever more integrated network. Progress toward headline applications such as fault-tolerant quantum computing will be faster if companies are able to leverage the quantum technology developments of others, rather than reinvent the wheel.
The Quantum Technology Packaging Challenge
Quantum technology companies are therefore turning their attention to the “packaging challenge” — making sure that enough time and resources are invested to produce quantum systems or sub-systems that can be purchased and used reliably by any other companies.
This has already begun to happen with the building blocks used for quantum technology. For example, Oxford Instruments are producing quantum-specific versions of their advanced cryogenic dilution refrigerators , and M-Squared have been collaborating with a number of institutions to offer integrated laser systems specifically designed for cold-atom quantum technologies .
This must continue to happen further up the supply chain, so that more companies can start offering and selling quantum-primitive systems, such as single-photon sources, ion-traps, superconducting qubit chips, quantum photonic circuits, etc. This in turn will require those companies to invest in packaging these systems in standardised, interoperable and robust ways that will enable them to have the greatest impact on the wider quantum technology economy.
Demonstrating proof of principle of a clever technology is challenging (and rewarding) in itself. However, our experience transferring complex lab bench setups into modular, integrable, robust devices ready for other users has shown us how often people underestimate the many non-trivial challenges involved.
Specifically, the packaging of quantum technologies to achieve this is likely to require development and innovation in a range of fields. In decreasing the level of human monitoring, packaging may entail the creation of streamlined, custom and fast control electronics, automation, or the refinement of highly specialised instrumentation. Resizing and scalability assessments will define what miniaturisation is possible. In addition, quantum-primitive systems will require environmental shielding, for example to ensure the stability of multiple sophisticated laser systems or to maintain extreme temperature gradients. Yet despite these demanding requirements, the packaging of such systems needs to go hand in hand with cost minimisation.
As effort is applied to the packaging challenge, developers will be able to eliminate the bulky racks of equipment which we know well from our own research in quantum physics and that currently present an engineering barrier to easily scaling many of these systems.
The challenge of successfully packaging such technology can actually drive innovation which itself can enable advancements in the quantum domain. For example, a recent effort to integrate control electronics within the ultra-cold dilution refrigerators used for superconducting qubits has resulted in a novel cryogenic-compatible control circuit that is potentially transformational for scaling these systems to greater numbers of qubits .
Aiming for modularity
In addressing the challenge, it will be crucial to develop and build products and sub-systems that are truly modular. A modular approach to designing complex systems not only helps companies in trading with others in key components, but also enables companies to scale their own technologies by more rapidly replicating and building around common core components and sub-systems. Consideration should also be given to provide modularity with standard, custom and develop options and connections to provide users with some flexibility of application.
Aside from the obvious challenges of robustness, miniaturisation and cost-reduction, successful modularisation will require additional thinking about how best to integrate the necessary electronics, power systems and control software so that each module can exist on its own as well as part of a larger system. If these modules are sufficiently well designed, it will allow more and more layers of the hardware system to be abstracted away, in turn enabling greater innovation and development of transformational scalable applications.
Moreover, it is anticipated that quantum technology standards will soon emerge and sit alongside current operational and international standards. If quantum technologies are incorporated in existing products and infrastructures, then adoption and understanding of these emerging standards will become paramount to success.
Of course, packaging these quantum-primitive systems in this way adds value in more ways than one. It benefits the internal quantum economy but also helps to demonstrate the broader vision, building confidence that this type of technology can be successfully productised and helping to drive further investment into the wider quantum technology sector.
Please talk to us about your quantum technology packaging challenge.