Take-off for the quantum flagship!
It was launched in mid-2017: the third research flagship of the European Commission. With € 1 billion in funding for ten years, it is intended to promote the development of quantum technologies in Europe. In addition, the Federal Government is funding the development of quantum technologies in Germany with € 650 million until 2021. “In the EU, we have a high level of scientific excellence in quantum technology. The flagship is designed to help us translate this potential into commercial products together with the industry. We would otherwise run the risk that findings that have been initiated in Europe will be developed into marketable applications outside the continent,” explains physicist Tommaso Calarco, who came from Ulm University to Jülich’s Peter Grünberg Institute (PGI-8) in September 2018. He is one of the spiritual fathers of the Quantum Manifesto – a twenty-page thesis paper that initiated the new flagship.
“Not only new theories and ideas are born here. The approaches can also be tested experimentally due to the extensive infrastructure.”
The programme aims to advance technologies that manipulate individual atoms, electrons or photons. In the first round, 20 projects have been funded since October 2018. The construction of a quantum computer is the “Holy Grail” of this research, explains Calarco: “But I also see other missions of great social relevance, such as securing European communications networks through quantum cryptography.” Behind this lies the tap-proof exchange of messages, in which the secret key is transmitted in the form of quantum information. Eavesdroppers would disturb the quantum properties, thus betraying themselves. In addition, high-precision navigation devices and sensitive sensors for medical diagnostics are to be developed. Jülich is involved in three of the 20 projects. Among other things, as part of the OpenSuperQ project, a quantum computer based on superconducting circuits is to be built there – the first of its kind in Europe. What’s special here: both hardware and software architecture will be disclosed and accessible so that the entire research community can participate in its development and use the computer. Forschungszentrum Jülich plays a key role in this, says Calarco. The diversity of expertise along the quantum technology development chain is convincing: “Not only are new theories and ideas born here. The approaches can also be tested experimentally due to the extensive infrastructure.”
The quantum technology flagship of the European Commission was launched in October 2018. Over ten years, the research programme will use grants totalling one billion euros to promote the development of products based on the rules of the exotic quantum world. The federal government will contribute an additional amount of about 650 million euros during the current legislative period. Prof. Tommaso Calarco from the Peter Grünberg Institute in Jülich is one of the intellectual fathers behind the initiative. Together with two colleagues, he published the “Quantum Manifesto” in spring 2016. Some 3,400 representatives from science and industry signed the twenty-page paper calling for a European initiative on next-generation quantum technologies. effzett talked to the physicist about the content orientation of the flagship programme’s first funding round.
The European flagship programme is to help develop “second-generation quantum technologies”. What does that mean?
Many applications and products of our daily life today are already based on effects of quantum mechanics. Without them, transistors, lasers and computer processors would not be conceivable. However, all these technologies are based on the fact that we use a large number of atoms, electrons, photons or other particles with them. The second quantum revolution, which is currently taking place, manipulates individual quantum objects. In communication, for example: nowadays, messages are transmitted, bit by bit, with laser pulses via fibre optic cables. These messages can be intercepted. All I have to do is take a few photons from the laser pulse. But if I send only a single photon per bit, a single quantum, then this cannot be divided any further. An eavesdropper would have to intercept the photon itself. But he would change it in doing so and thereby give himself away. Communication via individual photons, therefore, means the highest degree of security for data transmission.
The development of a quantum computer that is clearly superior to today’s supercomputers, at least for some tasks, is considered to be the “Holy Grail” of quantum technology. Is that one of the targets of the quantum flagship, too?
Oh yes, quantum computing is one of the programme’s four pillars. This is certainly a great, long-term vision, but also an extremely exciting application. Computers calculate with the bit as the smallest unit of information. In the quantum world, particles carrying information are no longer subject to the classical laws of the macroscopic world. Their states can overlap. Accordingly, bits in the quantum world – so-called qubits – can assume any value between zero and one. In addition, two particles can be entangled with each other. They are then connected to each other as if by an invisible ribbon. Albert Einstein once called this the “spooky action at a distance”. These effects are responsible for the extraordinary computing power of quantum computers, which should enable them, for example, to override the standard procedure for encrypting data on the Internet. They have not yet reached that point, but soon they should be able to play to their advantage in this respect. That would be a quantum leap in computing power in the truest sense of the word.
You mentioned that the quantum technology flagship rests on four pillars. What are the others?
Besides quantum computing and safe and fast communication, this is the simulation of complex materials with the help of simplified quantum models. This could promote the development of novel materials, for example. The field of sensor technology and metrology is the fourth pillar. This involves, for example, developing highly accurate measuring devices that can record brain activity in real time. This would help us to better understand neurological diseases and possibly cure them. Quantum technologies could also help us improve our navigation devices. Today, we navigate on the basis of satellite signals whose accuracy depends on atomic clocks. If we used individual, entangled atoms as impulse generators for these clocks, their precision could be significantly improved further. I would then know exactly how far away my car is from the roadside or from other cars. That would be enormously important for autonomous driving. So: even beyond the quantum computer, we are pursuing goals with great social relevance in our flagship program.
But aren’t we still in the field of basic research these days when it comes to quantum technologies? How can the transition to industrial applications be successful?
This is exactly what the flagship programme is all about. In Europe, at the scientific level, we have reached a level of maturity that enables us to translate this knowledge from the research laboratory into products. We have a high level of scientific excellence, but until recently we did not have the relevant involvement of industry, so that we would run the risk that the knowledge that has been initiated here in Europe would be transformed elsewhere into products and economic growth. We were aware that we had to act now. Because of the very strong competition from private and public donors outside Europe, there would otherwise be a danger for us to be left behind internationally. With the flagship programme, however, we have now set the right course. Basic research will continue to be important, because scientists need freedom to pursue ideas simply because of their curiosity. This results in findings that will later lead to applications. Basic research, thus, is the foundation for the four thematic pillars.
Where do you see the big challenges ahead of you?
We have now received a very large financial boost from both the European Commission and the Federal Government. Now we must endeavour to fill the research programme with life and to bring innovations to the market. Questions of robustness are also involved here. A high-precision sensor must not only work under controlled laboratory conditions, but also as a small, inexpensive chip on my mobile phone. To achieve this, quantum researchers and engineers must move towards each other in order to develop user-friendly products. We must therefore ensure that academic training is also adapted: we need degree programmes in quantum engineering. This will also be an important part of the quantum flagship.
TEXT AND INTERVIEW: Arndt Reuning
Images: Forschungszentrum Jülich/Sascha Kreklau