Trinity physicist gets €2.9m EU quantum grant to push timekeeping to the limit

2 Nov 2022

Prof Mark Mitchison. Image: Trinity College Dublin

Prof Mark Mitchison is leading a quantum technology project that will explore the second law of thermodynamics to see if precision measurements can be more energy efficient.

A Trinity College Dublin physicist has won a €2.9m EU grant to explore the limitations of nature’s timekeeping.

Prof Mark Mitchison from Trinity’s School of Physics secured a Quantum Technologies Flagship research grant from the EU. He is coordinating the Aspects consortium, which is bringing together experts across Europe to see if precision measurements can be more energy efficient.

To explore this possibility, the team is examining the second law of thermodynamics. In simple terms, this law suggests that hot things always cool unless something is done to stop the process.

Prof Marcus Huber, Aspects principal investigator at the Technical University of Vienna, said this law implies that “essentially everything in this universe can serve as a clock”.

“But what are the ultimate limits of timekeeping?” Huber added. “The answer both gives insight into the very foundation of what it means to measure time and guides practical clock design with resource efficiency in mind.”

The consortium aims to use state-of-the-art quantum machines to examine the trade-off between precision and efficiency in small quantum systems. Prof Simone Gasparinetti of Chalmers University, who is principal investigator, said this will be done by carefully measuring fluctuations in the output of these machines.

“Recording the fluctuations of these tiny machines is a demanding task that will require state-of-the-art techniques to amplify and measure microwave fields at the quantum level,” Gasparinetti explained.

Aspects is among a group of projects being funded by Horizon Europe with the goal of developing emerging technology to assist the transition to a greener and more sustainable economy.

Mitchison said we are at the “forefront of a new technological evolution” as quantum particles are being exploited to build the next generation of “superfast computers, secure communication devices and ultra-precise sensors”.

“Quantum technology promises to become a huge industry over the next few decades, and the Quantum Technologies Flagship was designed to kick-start that activity in Europe,” Mitchison said.

Principal investigator Prof Javier Prior from the University of Murcia added that by understanding the thermodynamic cost of precision, the consortium’s work could lead to more energy-efficient measuring devices on other platforms.

“Aside from practical applications, it is crucial for our future prosperity to invest in basic scientific research in order to build a European knowledge base in quantum technologies,” Prior said.

This isn’t Mitchison’s first exploration into the second law of thermodynamics. He was recently the lead author in a study that found a potential exception to the rule in so-called topological materials, where current can appear to flow from colder to hotter regions.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic