Behind the breakthroughs – the realm of quantum

September 25, 2023

Australia’s universities have built the nation’s quantum expertise and abilities for decades, making a multibillion-dollar industry possible.

An industry estimated to be worth $2.2 billion by 2030, and $6 billion by 2045. Up to 19,400 new jobs. That’s what Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic says quantum technologies offer Australia. “I can’t emphasise this enough, quantum technologies will be truly transformative,” he says. 

Australian quantum capability has been many decades in the making, with a foundation possible only through the university ecosystem. 

Professor Hans Bachor is regarded as a pioneer of quantum optics in Australia. The field barely existed when Bachor arrived at Australian National University (ANU) as a postdoctoral scientist in 1981. “With a small team of researchers, I started exploring photonics — the quantum nature of light,” he recalls. 

Improvements in the early days were incremental, and funded largely by the university. “We were basically ticking off, bit by bit, a long list of [requirements] that needed to be met before you could call a machine a quantum sensor, computer or encryptor,” he says. “Critically, the research community also built necessary fabrication facilities and clean rooms on site, and custom-made equipment was possible thanks to personal ties with colleagues in the USA and Germany.” 

Other universities were building quantum science capability in the late 1980s and early 1990s, too. At the University of Queensland, Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop built cold-atom capability, and Professor Robert Clark established research teams and infrastructure such as the National Pulsed Magnetic Laboratory at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). This capability was later absorbed into the Special Research Centre for Quantum Computer Technology, which became the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computer Technology (CQCT). 

Throughout this time, dozens of graduate students and post-doctoral researchers were being trained in the emerging avenues of research. Along with this growing expertise, new collaborations were formed, and the huge potential of the research drew further investment and exploration amongst university science. 

In 2003, Bachor was appointed founding director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum-Atom Optics (ACQAO), established to study atoms and light at the quantum level and to explore options for future quantum technologies. Partner institutions were ANU, Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Queensland. 

“That was a big step forward, as it brought together expertise across universities, provided long-term funding, and allowed us to present a united front with strong leadership,” he says. 

“It also ensured we had a continuous pipeline of the highest-ranking
university scientists working together within Australia. 

“For equipment, we received grants through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, and CSIRO Optics made us unique devices with non-linear crystals.”

Data’s new day

Quantum research that Bachor and colleagues undertook across multiple Australian universities led to new, highly sensitive measurement techniques and approaches for optical communication and data storage. 

Quantum technology takes advantage of the unique properties of matter and light – even down at the tiny scales of atoms, electrons and single particles.

“When you have exquisite control over light and matter, you can reveal quantum properties that can be exploited for communication, cryptography, computing and sensing in new ways,” says Sally Shrapnel, Associate Professor in physics at the University of Queensland. 

“This enables us to perform tasks that until now simply were not possible.”

Shrapnel is Deputy Director at EQUS — the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems, which includes the University of Queensland, Australian National University, Macquarie University, the University of Sydney and the University of Western Australia. She says the ARC’s Centre of Excellence program has been a key part of bolstering Australian universities’ quantum research capabilities.

“Centres of Excellence are one of the main vehicles to enable high-quality research in Australia,” Shrapnel says.

“They’re well-funded, multi-node centres creating networks of expertise that can interface with government, industry and community.”

Bachor says in the early days the centres played an important role in giving researchers the time needed to build a successful endeavour.

 “The first generation of Centres of Excellence lasted about seven or eight years, which was long enough to get us an international reputation, to attract people, and to form collaborations with Europe and the USA. So the whole thing flourished.”

Into industry

Australia has now produced more than 2,500 PhDs in quantum technology research and development in 30 years, and several major quantum tech companies have spun out of this research. But the greatest strength to emerge is one of continuous innovation in physics. 

“The technologies are now at the stage where they’re attracting big money – but that doesn’t negate the ongoing importance of the university sector,” Shrapnel says. “The potential for quantum technologies relies on every step in the chain, so we’ve still got to keep doing quality foundational work, including ongoing investment in students studying pure maths and pure physics.”

Bachor says universities remain a critical part of maximising quantum promise.

“While money, technology and access to equipment are all important for getting the most from quantum, having access to the right people is crucial. Companies need scientists who have a PhD – the training you get at a university is the essential process.”  

And while quantum delivers on the promise of decades of exploratory research, the depth of the innovation in this area is just beginning to bear fruit. 

“Australia offers a culture of academic freedom, openness to ideas, and an amazing willingness to pursue goals that are ambitious,” says pioneering quantum researcher Professor Michelle Simmons. By developing the capacity of new generations to engage in revolutionary research like this, Australia has placed itself “several years ahead” of the US in the race to build a quantum computer.

Written by: Sarah Keenihan

First published in Australian University Science. Issue 10 2023

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