Ireland is gearing up for the next generation of quantum technologies

13 Sep 2022

Dr Steve Campbell. Image: UCD

UCD’s Dr Steve Campbell reflects on the past, present and future of Ireland’s role in the advancement of quantum technologies.

Many fundamental theories of physics have resulted in important technological revolutions, such as engines and refrigerators from thermodynamics, or modern electronics from electromagnetism.

Recent decades have seen great strides taken in our ability to prepare and manipulate systems – such as individual atoms, electrons, or photons – which are so small and isolated that they can only be accurately described using quantum mechanics.

Now, the seemingly exotic rules of the quantum world are providing remarkable new opportunities for technological breakthroughs.

Quantum physics in Irish history

In this endeavour, Ireland has a remarkably intimate and grand history. The Irish physicist John Bell provided the fundamental breakthrough to test the veracity of arguably the most counterintuitive aspect of quantum mechanics – its inherent non-local character – which now lies at the heart of this technological revolution.

‘Nonlocality’ refers to the curious fact that, for quantum systems comprised of two or more constituents that have interacted (imagine, for example, two electrons that collided at some point), the act of measuring one of these electrons affects the state of the other, even if they are separated by vast distances.

Bell’s nonlocality arises from a very fundamental aspect of quantum mechanics concerning how strong correlations can be. Think of a light switch and the bulb it is connected to. In so-called ‘classical physics’ – the world of Newton and Einstein – the switch can only be on or off, never anything in between, and the state of the bulb is correlated with the state of the switch.

Quantum mechanics tells us that before we look at the switch, it can exist in a combination (or ‘superposition’, in the quantum lingo) of the possibilities. Essentially, it can simultaneously be both on and off. The resulting correlation with the bulb due to this superposition is what we call entanglement.

Once thought to be a fundamental flaw in quantum theory, quantum superposition and entanglement are now established physical phenomena and are ushering in a new wave of devices which utilise these distinctly quantum mechanical effects as resources. These quantum technologies include the most accurate sensors allowed by the laws of physics, unbreakable communication channels and, most excitingly, entirely new paradigms for computation and information processing.

Quantum science in Ireland’s present

While there has been steady activity in the area of quantum information in Ireland for more than 25 years, recently there has been a significant surge. Driven largely by grassroots activity, supported through national and European funding, virtually every Irish higher education institution is host to an internationally recognised group at the forefront of quantum science and technology.

This has precipitated several major initiatives, such as the establishment of research centres at University College Dublin (UCD) and Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork, and the recently launched MSc in quantum science and technology at Trinity College Dublin, which saw its first cohort of graduates this summer.

These activities feed into the overarching goal to train the next generation of quantum scientists and engineers and to facilitate key knowledge exchange between major industry players with a presence in Ireland, such as IBM, Microsoft, Dell, Google, Intel, homegrown quantum computing enterprise Equal1, and our universities.

The symbiotic relationships being created across these sectors are allowing our researchers to attack a range of exciting challenges from simulating complex molecular dynamics to developing ultraprecise sensors and beyond.

Towards a quantum future

The Irish quantum community is coming together to meet the grand challenge of developing quantum devices. The Irish Research Council, in conjunction with the Shared Island initiative from the Department of An Taoiseach, recently funded EQUITY: Éire Strategy for Quantum Information and Technology.

The first activity under this scheme brought together most of Ireland’s leading scientists in the field, together with major industry representatives, for a two-day workshop to discuss where Ireland stands currently and where we are poised to make an impact.

Several directions are now driving forward including major projects on quantum computing architectures, quantum sensing, and developing a secure quantum communications network. In an age where the protection of our personal data is more important than ever, this last point is highly relevant beyond the ivory tower of academia.

Most of all, EQUITY placed high importance on ensuring that the impact of quantum technologies reached as broad an audience as possible. One step in achieving this goal is with the upcoming Quantum Festival at UCD, where quantum researchers across the whole Island of Ireland will come together to showcase their work.

This event also includes a public lecture by leading quantum securities expert Dr Eleni Diamanti, CNRS research director at the LIP6 Laboratory of Sorbonne University in Paris. In her lecture, ‘Secure communication in a quantum world’, Diamanti will explain how the way in which we transmit information is changing thanks to quantum mechanics, what that means for security, and how quantum technologies are poised to impact so many aspects of our lives.

By Dr Steve Campbell

Dr Steve Campbell is a theoretical physicist at the UCD School of Physics and a member of the UCD Centre for Quantum Engineering, Science, and Technology (C-QuEST).

Dr Eleni Diamanti will speak at the UCD Quantum Festival on 29 September. Register for free here.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.