By using the properties of microscopic atoms and subatomic particles, scientists in Scotland are developing ultra-high-performance applications with the potential to tackle previously impossible problems. Think of quantum technology being used in electric-vehicle batteries and advanced imaging systems that detect cancer, as examples. In fact, according to Dr Graeme Malcolm OBE - Chief Executive and founder of Glasgow-based photonics and quantum technology company M Squared - the coming era of quantum technology will actually play a major role in both our economy and our society.
By 2040, the quantum sector globally is forecast to grow to $86 billion USD, Australia’s National Science Research Agency predicted this year. In the coming decades, productivity gains from quantum computing, in the form of both cost savings and revenue opportunities, are expected to surpass $450 billion USD annually.
In Scotland, scientists and their industry partners are working on important quantum applications including cameras that can see around corners, un-hackable communications networks and the UK’s first commercial quantum computer. The universities of Glasgow, Strathclyde, Heriot-Watt, St Andrews and Edinburgh are all renowned for their abilities in photonics, quantum technologies and all the enabling technologies that go to make it up.
Other Scottish universities have got their own skill sets as well. So why wouldn't you come to Scotland to capitalise on this skills pipeline, in the same way that many computing and software companies have come to Scotland to capitalise on our strengths in computer science?
Quantum imaging can ‘see the unseen’
The University of Glasgow leads QuantIC, one of our four quantum technology hubs being funded through the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme in the areas of sensing, imaging, communications and computing.
QuantIC brings together the universities of Glasgow, Bristol, Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, Southampton, Imperial College, Exeter and Strathclyde with more than 30 industry partners and is focused on quantum-enhanced imaging. This includes developing new types of ultra-high sensitivity cameras that can spot gas leaks, see through smoke, and even look round corners or underneath our skin.
We obviously can't see around corners with our own eyes, but we are able to use quantum technology to image what's behind the corner. So, for example, if a child runs out in front of a car, the car might be able to see that child before she appears and avoid an accident".
The University of Glasgow is also a member of the Quantum Communications Hub, focused on ultra-secure encrypted communications using a technology called quantum key distribution (often referred to as QKD).
QKD has huge potential benefits for open banking and fintech – areas where Scotland is already building a global reputation. The Global Open Finance Centre of Excellence at the University of Edinburgh secured £22.5 million UK Research and Innovation funding in 2020 to develop financial technology and education that will deliver social and economic benefits around the world.
Another example is Scottish fintech startup, ID Co which offers individuals a secure, easy and effective way to prove who they are online. The company is now ready to expand its business from its base in Edinburgh with banks and customers in every part of the world.
“The aim is to secure not just the long-distance transatlantic linkages, but also, for example, your mobile phone communicating with a cash machine,” Steve explains. “To get cash out, your phone needs to be able to send an ‘unspoofable’ signal to identify who you are. Those are the things that you can potentially secure with quantum technology”.
Scotland – a leading light in photonics
Before nanotechnology emerged as a target for research and development with industry in the 1980s, Scotland already had an international reputation for 400 years of optical and photonics excellence. This has been key to the growth of Scotland’s expertise in quantum technology, which relies heavily on advanced laser technologies.
Photonics – the technology of harnessing light using lasers, fibre-optics and other technologies – is already a £1 billion industry in Scotland employing 5,500 highly skilled people, says Photonics Scotland, the Scottish Optoelectronics Association. M Squared is one of the world’s leading photonics and quantum technology companies. In 2019, the company opened a new quantum research facility at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.
The facility focuses on the development of new technologies that take advantage of the behaviour of atomic-scale physics, including quantum sensors for measuring gravity and acceleration, quantum clocks and quantum computers.
M Squared is leading the UK’s largest industry-led quantum computing project to date, the £10 million, three-year DISCOVERY programme. This aims to address technology barriers to commercial quantum computing and has received funding from Innovate UK. Strathclyde and seven other partner organisations with a strong track record in quantum-computing hardware development are involved in the project.
Scotland’s legacy of invention
Scotland’s pre-eminent position in photonics and optics goes back to James Gregory in the 17th century, who invented the modern reflecting telescope, and James Clark Maxwell, who formulated the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation. Then in the late 19th century, Glasgow-based optical engineering firm Barr & Stroud played a leading role in the development of modern optics. This included the design and manufacture of medical equipment and optical rangefinders – devices that measure distance – for the Royal Navy.
Throughout the 20th century, Scotland’s universities became renowned for their ability to produce highly-skilled optical and photonic engineers and scientists, providing the foundation for a new generation of photonics businesses.
Photonics Scotland, in its plan A Vision for 2030, sets out to treble the size of Scotland’s photonics sector by 2030.
The photonics sector in Scotland is built around a vibrant industrial core of 60 companies developing and manufacturing a diverse range of photonic products from eye scanners and thermal cameras to LED lighting and micro displays.
UK centre of excellence in photonics
The University of Strathclyde in Glasgow is a centre of excellence in photonics. And it’s the only academic institution to be a partner in all four of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme hubs.
Strathclyde is involved in multiple projects across the four hubs and their key areas of quantum research in sensing, imaging, communications and computing. The university is also involved in quantum projects funded by the UK Government's Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.
These include a UK-wide £5.4 million project to speed up the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles, and a £4.6m quantum computing project which could strengthen banking security, enhance traffic management and develop novel materials to support aerospace security.
Benefits from healthcare to energy distribution
Other potential applications from this partnership include faster drug design for improved healthcare and ways to improve the efficiency of energy distribution across the National Grid.
Erling Riis, Professor of Physics at the University of Strathclyde, says:
"Quantum physics is a key element of Strathclyde’s research strategy and has been for a number of years. Our areas of strength include secure communications networks, portable atomic clocks and measurement devices, as well as new computing technologies that are set to outperform the fastest super computers".
The University of Glasgow is leading a £5.5 million project to develop home healthcare monitoring technology, while Scottish firm, Optos already use photonics to develop eyecare technology.
World-class research with Fraunhofer
Strathclyde’s Institute of Photonics, established in 1995 as part the physics department, is a commercially-focused research unit, with specialisms in advanced lasers, neurophotonics – using lasers to study the brain – and the fabrication of photonic materials and devices. The Institute is a strategic partner with Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics (Fraunhofer CAP), a world leader in the commercialisation of photonics and quantum research.
Strathclyde is one of 13 organisations from across the UK working in partnership with Fraunhofer to look at increasing the manufacturability, reliability – and reducing the size, weight, power consumption and cost – of laser components and systems.
Fraunhofer CAP leads the £10 million project, called QT Assemble (as part of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme), which could revolutionise not just quantum components but advanced manufacturing in the future. Photonics already has a role to play in digital supply chains.
In December 2020, the University of Edinburgh and Fraunhofer won grant funding from the UK Space Agency for two satellite communication projects involving photonics/quantum technology. Meanwhile, Glasgow-based space startup, Craft Prospect has secured funding to work with Fraunhofer to produce quantum components for CubeSat satellites.