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  • Tim Kannegieter

Quantum technology: New frontiers in sensing

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

What could you do with gravity sensors that are so sensitive, they can tell the difference between a person standing by the side of a road and that of a bollard or post? So sensitive, you can detect water leaks by the increased mass in the earth relative to the drier soil around it. So sensitive, that you can accurately detect pipes and cables laid under a road surface. Now that would have been handy for Sydney’s light rail project that has been chronically delayed, largely due to poor records of the infrastructure beneath the planned route.

Quantum gravity sensors are real, emerging from the lab and into the early commercialisation phase. The opportunities in civil engineering alone are staggering. This technology will give complete certainty of ground conditions ahead of excavation or in mining applications, being able to easily characterise rock and soil conditions, water aquifers, oil and gas deposits and old tunnels/mineshafts.

Quantum sensors can detect the gravitation pull that a human body exerts on its surroundings

To give you an idea of the sensitivity of the emerging new class of quantum sensors, they can detect the gravitation pull that a human body exerts on its surroundings – about one-billionth of the earth’s gravity.

I learned all these facts from a presentation Professor Kai Bongs, Director of the UK Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology. Kai was speaking at an event organised by the NSW Smart Sensing Network.

Professor Kai Bongs, Director of the UK Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology

Apart from gravity, the hub is developing quantum sensors for magnetic fields, rotation, time, THz radiation and quantum light. The core technology enabling these sensors is laser cooling, whereby atoms are cooled close to zero Kelvins without any need for cryogenic cooling. Laser cooling enables individual atoms to be manipulated by laser light.

Asked about the relative merits of quantum gravity sensors compared to traditional techniques such as ground-penetrating radar and spring-based devices, Kai explained that apart from the increased sensitivity and depth, quantum tools were much faster in yielding results. Gaining a data point using classical gravity tools can take several minutes, translating to weeks to characterise typical construction sites. With quantum sensors, the time per data point is reduced to seconds, opening up the possibility of gravity-based ground characterisation becoming a normal procedure, rather than by exception.   

Civil engineering is just one field of application. Kai described applications in medical technology, autonomous driving, agriculture and navigation/positioning, to name a few.

Our CEO, Geoff Sizer, has a test for how excited we should get about such technologies – “can you buy one?” I had to tell him, no, not just yet. But the exciting thing about the UK’s Quantum Technology Hub is that it is not undertaking any pure research. The Hub focuses on bringing proven technologies to a commercially deployable state.

The remaining challenges are around the supporting hardware, such a developing vacuum tubes that can sit on a shelf for 20 years maintaining their pressure. However, there is an ecosystem of companies around the hub that are rapidly solving these challenges.

The larger opportunity is in the commercial deployment of these technologies, being first to capture the market in various fields. That involves deploying these sensors in devices with all the supporting systems that Genesys can provide. We are looking forward to working with companies deploying cutting edge sensing technologies like these.

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