The quantum sector is nearing the tipping point of its transition from R&D into real-world applications. Sydney’s “Quantum Harbour” is leading the way with its critical mass of world-class researchers and infrastructure, ready for the next leap in quantum technology.
Quantum technologies are starting to mature at an incredible rate and are already beginning to generate economic outputs. These entirely new classes of devices are erupting, and they’re all based on harnessing the bizarre behaviours that are exhibited in the sub- atomic world.
While the realisation of quantum computers is perhaps synonymous with quantum technologies, the application of quantum effects stretches far further. The field is already starting to transform electronics, communications, and sensing, and will create new markets, new applications and new jobs in Australia – most of which are yet to be imagined.
The CSIRO’s Quantum Technology Roadmap, published in May 2020, predicted just how large this fledgling industry is going to be. The report states that the quantum technology industry could be worth over $4 billion in revenue for Australia by 2040 and create 16,000 new jobs.
With new companies setting up shop and a slew of research outcomes taking humankind ever closer to this technological revolution, Sydney in particular has become an essential contributor in the global pursuit of quantum tech.
The past decade has seen Sydney turn into a veritable playground for those that are working to deliver functional quantum computers. The city is host to a potent mixture of brilliant scientists and engineers that are supported by local authorities and institutions, all underpinned by a focused network of open access research infrastructure. The results have meant Sydney can entice some of the greatest minds in the field to its labs.
However, the rapidly growing demand for experts is starting to outweigh the supply. Yet again Sydney’s universities are stepping up to the plate to create a workforce focused on this burgeoning economy and securing Australia’s share in this billion-dollar industry to be.
Grow your own genius
In July 2020, UNSW announced it will become the first university in the world to offer a Bachelor of Quantum Engineering degree.
The course covers a range of quantum technologies including nanoelectronics, microwave engineering and quantum technologies for advanced sensors, secure communications and computing.
World-leading expert in quantum engineering and long-term ANFF-NSW client, UNSW Scientia Professor Andrea Morello, has been the driving force behind the new degree. He believes an undergraduate offering in quantum technology is essential to building a world-class quantum workforce in Australia.
“As it stands, there simply aren’t enough qualified engineers to fill the jobs needing quantum skills in Australia – or anywhere in the world, in fact,” Professor Morello said. “Developing and applying the cutting-edge technologies in these fields demands a deep understanding of their quantum nature. Moreover, this understanding can also be used to develop devices and capabilities that have no precedent, like quantum computers and quantum secure telecommunications. This is why we created the new degree.”
Starting in Term 3 2020, the UNSW course will train students in advanced electronics and telecommunication engineering, specialising in how to design and control complex quantum systems.
The course complements a PhD-level offering already available through the Sydney Quantum Academy (SQA), a joint venture between Macquarie University, UTS, UNSW, and the University of Sydney, with funding from the NSW State Government.
SQA brings together leaders in the field to build Australia’s quantum economy through the provision of education and training programs, collaborative research, industry development, investment attraction, and promotion of the benefits and implications of quantum technology.
The Academy unites budding quantum scientists and engineers with a mixture of ANFF-enabled world-leading researchers. These include the likes of the University of Sydney’s Professor David Reilly, and UNSW’s Professor Michelle Simmons, Professor Andrea Morello, and ANFF-NSW Director, Professor Andrew Dzurak.
Fabricating the future
Underpinning any leap in quantum technology is a need for world-class nanofabrication. Without the ability to build at the nanoscale, researchers and engineers would be unable to induce the quantum phenomena used to create these critical technologies that are vital to Australia’s economic future.
Through use of ANFF-NSW’s specialised fabrication facilities at UNSW and the University of Sydney, the last year alone has seen great bounds taken towards new quantum technologies, in particular in quantum computing.
Quantum computers pose significant improvements over conventional computers for particular applications due to their ability to process incredible amounts of information simultaneously. This is possible due to a fundamental change in hardware.
To store information in binary code, conventional computers utilise on/off switches called transistors to represent 1s and 0s. Quantum computers instead use qubits that contain quantum systems held in a delicate balance somewhere between the two – the result is that instead of being a 1 or a 0, qubits can be both at the same time.
The benefit becomes clear when many qubits are used together. For example, a quantum computer with just 300 qubits would be able to store more numerical values than there are atoms in the universe. Classical systems would need to become overwhelmingly large or be given incredible amounts of time to achieve things that quantum computers could process with relative ease.
But this delicate superposition of quantum states requires impressive fabrication capabilities to build and maintain their integrity, and the hurdles to engineering these solutions are still many.
Handling the heat
One such obstacle is creating a qubit that operates at practically obtainable temperatures – until this year the silicon-based qubit approach that Professor Andrew Dzurak and his colleagues at UNSW are working towards required temperatures at close to absolute zero to maintain coherence.
However, in March, ANFF-NSW-enabled research published in Nature by an international team led by Professor Dzurak, demonstrated a qubit architecture that could operate at higher temperatures than ever before – their proof of concept device therefore provides a way to reduce the cost of cooling by orders of magnitude.
The team’s design allows the devices to operate at temperatures around 1.5K, an increase of 15 times that of previous architectures. “This is still very cold, but is a temperature that can be achieved using just a few thousand dollars’ worth of refrigeration, rather than the millions of dollars needed to cool chips to 0.1 Kelvin,” explained Professor Dzurak.
There are other hurdles to overcome in advancing this technology, but handling the heat is one of the largest and Professor Dzurak’s work provides an enormous step in the right direction.
What’s more, the device is produced using conventional fabrication techniques meaning it can be replicated in existing semiconductor ‘chip’ foundries. As with the majority of the work conducted by Professor Dzurak’s team, these devices are built with ANFF-NSW’s Silicon-MOS fabrication line, using similar processes to those currently used to produce conventional computing components. This means there are already production lines in place that can be adapted to produce the new quantum computing components at scale, using existing semiconductor foundries once these devices are perfected.
This ready-for-industry mindset is essential for rapid and more affordable uptake of quantum computing. Established businesses such as Microsoft – which is racing towards the realisation of quantum computers through their extensive work with ANFF- NSW at the University of Sydney – are heavily involved the pursuit of quantum computers, and it’s becoming easier to see what the production pipeline will look like.
However, it’s not just computing giants that are on the chase, and Sydney-based organisations are emerging in the field to take a slice of the action. One fine example is Silicon Quantum Computing Pty Ltd, which launched in May 2017 with over A$83 million of capital funding from the Australian Commonwealth Government, UNSW Sydney, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Telstra Corporation and the State Government of New South Wales. The company was established to commercialise silicon qubit research from the Australian Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communications Technology (CQC2T).
Archer takes aim
Another of these newer players is Archer Materials, an ASX-listed company focused on pursuing novel uses of advanced materials to develop new streams of revenue.
Archer has been working with ANFF’s micro and nanofabrication experts at the University of Sydney for over a year as they pursue a carbon-based approach to building a qubit.
In June, Archer demonstrated conductivity in its prototype qubit component for the first time, a significant milestone in the company’s pursuit of developing quantum computing technologies.
This development involved preparing and analysing the conductivity of the prototype with nanometre precision.
Dr Martin Fuechsle, Archer’s Manager of Quantum Technology, worked with specialist technical staff based at the University of Sydney’s Research and Prototype Foundry (RPF) to prepare the sample and then perform the conductance analysis.
On the back of this achievement, Dr Fuechsle explained that the company can now continue along its technical development roadmap towards a working qubit prototype. He said: “As part of this developmental process, we will continue to use the RPF facilities at USyd, as well as lab facilities at collaborating institutes, such as UNSW in Sydney and EPFL in Switzerland. Our next experimental efforts will focus on controlling the electron spin state on individual qubit components using single carbon nanospheres.”
Only time will tell
As to how and when quantum computing will become a part of everyday life, only time will tell, there’s still a plethora of obstacles to overcome before the full scope of the picture comes into focus. However, with the breadth of activity occurring in ANFF-enabled labs, with an increase in expertise provided by UNSW and SQA programs, and with the continued support of the city’s universities and Government, one near certainty is that Sydney will be at the heart of it all.