‘Quantum tech represents key intellectual and economic opportunity for Ireland’

6 Feb 2019

Prof Séamus Davis. Image: UCC

Award-winning physicist Prof Séamus Davis of UCC is working on bringing quantum technology to a whole new level.

For the past 10 years, University College Cork (UCC) graduate Prof Séamus Davis was the James Gilbert White distinguished professor of physical sciences at Cornell University and a senior physicist at the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory.

In 2005 he was awarded the Fritz London Memorial Prize, the greatest honour in low-temperature physics; in 2009 he received the Kamerlingh Onnes Prize, named after the Nobel laureate who discovered superconductivity; and in 2016 he was named as one of two recipients of the Science Foundation Ireland St Patrick’s Day Science Medal.

He is now set to take on the role as the head of a joint Irish-UK research programme split between UCC and the University of Oxford.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Since I was a child, I had always been stimulated by trying to imagine and understand the hidden reality that underpins all we see around us. However, at graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, I first saw Bose-Einstein condensation of liquid 4He into the superfluid state – it’s astonishing and amazing.

You can see an object as big as a cup of coffee make the transition into a macroscopic quantum state right before your eyes. After that, I was hooked by the challenge to understand and to use macroscopic quantum phenomena of all kinds. The world has come full circle so that now such macroscopic quantum effects are believed to underpin the next technological revolution.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

The Davis Group’s research concentrates upon the fundamental physics of electronic, magnetic and atomic quantum matter. A speciality is the development of innovative instrumentation to allow direct visualisation – or perception – of characteristic quantum many-body phenomena at atomic scale.

Our group plans to operate two suites of ultra-low vibration laboratories, one in the Kane Building at University College Cork and the other in the Beecroft Building at Oxford University. Ours is a single research group conducting scientifically harmonised studies with complementary scientific instruments at Cork and Oxford. The overall objective is to exploit the distinct capabilities and facilities at both laboratories to maximise scientific efficiency.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Because it reveals new knowledge of nature. It is important that research funding is focused on the future of information technology, including the development of quantum computers and the quest to find a new generation of superconductors. As I stated before, we need to have a foot in the door of the future. What form IT will take in 20 to 50 years’ time is a question which demands our focus, considering how reliant we are in our society and economy on information technology.

Research such as this can be difficult to generally understand because it is frontier research. Imagine those researchers all those years ago who said they would bring moving pictures to a box, or those who, with vision, said we will go beyond our planet and land humans over 380,000km away on the moon. Pioneering research needs vision, support and nurturing, and in Ireland I am seeing spectacularly sophisticated research being rapidly grown.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

It depends how far one can foresee, but developing quantum materials for quantum technology is now a worldwide race.

The technologies underpinning our global economy and society – based on silicon microelectronics, fibre optics, semiconductor photonics and wireless – are rapidly approaching the limits of their capacity. To take their place, a major disruptive force in the form of the second quantum revolution is emerging in which computing, communication, encryption and even information itself will be wholly quantum mechanical phenomenal.

For example, room temperature superconductors would improve the power efficiency and stability of power networks worldwide, and improve the efficiency of solar and wind farms to transmit their energy with no loss because you can’t build a high-voltage line for every wind farm.

Also, they would greatly improve the ability to send more power into built-up areas without digging up all the streets, not to mention revolutionising IT because laptops, tablets, iPads and so on would use little or no energy, and furthermore would be 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than at present. Room-temperature superconductors will also be very important for high-energy physics, fundamental science and medicine, and future forms of transport.

Global IT corporations such as Google, Microsoft, IBM and Intel are now investing intensively in a race to achieve dominance in the new field of quantum technology.

The future of quantum technology will be based on three key interrelated elements: quantum information, quantum devices and quantum matter. Among the goals of the global quantum technology initiative is creating a quantum internet, with quantum computers integrated in a quantum-entangled (and thus secure) global network.

The emerging quantum technology field represents a key intellectual, technical and economic opportunity for Ireland. But, to be competitive in this field, we urgently need to harness international scientific leadership, nurture and develop our talent base, and ensure that the necessary advanced scientific infrastructure required is in place.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

There are few conceptions at all about this frontier area of research as far as I can tell.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Convert operating materials for quantum computers from today’s aluminium – which only operates at temperatures of -273 degrees centigrade – to high-temperature superconductors so these computers can become widely used without massive cryogenic installations.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.