Breakthrough and Vision
The long term vision of this project is a modular, scalable and portable quantum technology family based on the confinement of cold atoms using an optical lattice, adaptable to a wide variety of applications in diverse working environments. Today’s sensors are almost entirely based on classical working principles, e.g. falling corner cubes for gravity measurements. Although hard to beat in terms of cost-benefit for standard applications, for step changes in precision these devices become impractical due to rapidly increasing requirements on material and manufacturing tolerances. In this realm quantum sensors using atoms as probes are a superior choice, as the fundamental physical properties of the atoms themselves ensure reproducibility and consistency.
However, despite highly successful proof of principle demonstrators 10 years ago, e.g. reaching precision records for gravity and gravity gradients, this revolutionary quantum technology has essentially remained confined to a laboratory environment. The main reason lies in the bulkiness and fragility of the setup, which is dominated by a complex laser system necessary for state control and interrogation and a vacuum system which has to allow for a “free fall” period in which the sensing is taking place.
This project tackles both these fundamental barriers by simultaneously targeting two breakthroughs, one scientific and one technological. Scientifically it targets the proof-of-principle realisation of novel schemes for guided precision sensors using optical lattices or quantum levitation, which would allow significant reductions in size of the vacuum system and remove precision limitations due to finite free fall periods. Technologically it utilises state-of-the-art methods developed recently in the information and communication sector, where integrated optics is enabling ubiquitous high-speed internet and communications infrastructure. Transferring Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) has the potential to reduce the form factor of atom-based quantum sensors by at least an order of magnitude which would enable a step change towards commercial applications. This technology has the potential to benefit the entire field of cold atom research and future cold-atom based quantum devices.
Overall, this project aims at a general technology platform proven by the demonstration of a self-contained backpack-size, “turn-key” quantum system. This would be the first in a line progressing from sensors to quantum computation, the latter being enabled by precision control of the optical lattice environment and control beams resulting from the transfer of ICT to this systems concept.
The vision behind this project is to unleash the power of high-precision quantum sensors in a wide range of science and technology applications. In terms of fundamental science a precise force sensor based on the proposed technology would be designed and fabricated enabling a crucial step forward in detailed investigations of the Casimir force, or a search for deviations from Newtonian gravity. It would also be a tool for space missions, where compact, low power, ultra-high precision investigation of the local space-time manifold is required, or indeed where a distributed network of such sensors would be appropriate. The absence of local gravitational “noise” has the potential to achieve significantly higher sensitivity. All these scientific applications would provide extremely sensitive fundamental tests of our current theoretical framework in physics where small deviations from theory would be revolutionary.
Gravity sensors are already used in geodesy (e.g. ocean circulation, water balances, Antarctic ice levels, magma flows, etc), in the exploration of resources (location of scarce minerals, oil fields, etc) and archaeology (non-destructive mapping of sites and location of intact caverns). The improvements in precision and robustness offered by the quantum force sensor targeted in this proposal would not only make these applications more routine but offer completely new possibilities, e.g. the location and extraction of fragmented oil bubbles in current oil fields (potentially increasing the fraction of oil captured from today’s typical 40%). Other applications include the temporal supervision of carbon storage sites and monitoring of ground water, snow and soil moisture to improve climate models and our understanding of the global ecosystem.
In the longer term we anticipate novel communications paradigms (e.g. ultra wide band network timing) using a quantum-based position-time grid that would not require GPS, and exceed its accuracy by orders of magnitude. Further applications would become apparent as the technology develops, e.g. atom-based quantum information technology including computing and secure communications for a range of purposes including global trade exchange.
The technological breakthrough of transferring and adapting ICT into laser systems for cold atom preparation and control is the key essential and challenging step towards achieving these long term visions, as all rely on precise control of coherent, laser-generated photon fields and precision pulses. Laser systems based on integrated optics would not only be significantly more compact than standard laser technology but would also offer superior stability, adaptability and control, which will be crucial for precision measurements as well as quantum gate operations.