Europe is on the eve of a quantum revolution. However, a lot of cooperation is still required between science and industry before the revolution is allowed to burst onto the scene. The conference Quantum Europe 2016 on 17 May in Amsterdam gave that cooperation an extra impulse.
TNO and quantum technology: a dynamic combination, according to Rogier Verberk. "You can already see applications with a low investment threshold, such as sensors based on quantum techniques, which can be put on the market quickly", he says with enthusiasm.
Verberk is project manager of QuTech, the institute of TU Delft and TNO that carries out research into quantum technology. "There are also businesses – security companies, for example – that are bringing the first generation of a product onto the market, using quantum key distribution, the ultimate form of secure communication. Their current methods make it very hard to eavesdrop on communications, but in the end eavesdropping has to become totally impossible."
The second revolution
Leo Kouwenhoven, the professor of physics at Delft who became world-renowned by discovering the Majorana fermion, addressed an audience of interested parties on what is already being called the second quantum revolution. "We are on the threshold of major challenges in the fields of energy, climate, food and diseases. They can be solved only if we speak the same language as nature, the language of quantum mechanics."
The quantum computer is expected to emerge from this second revolution – a superfast computer that can perform countless calculations simultaneously. With a computer like that all kinds of new discoveries are within reach, ranging from software for aircraft calculations to better medicines. But at the conference all types of companies are showing their products in which the latest quantum techniques have been applied.
“We are on the threshold of major challenges in the fields of energy, climate, food and diseases”
A lot of research and development is needed in order to ensure that it does not stop there: not by individual research institutes, but by close collaboration with experts both from the world of research and from industry.
"Nobody can take this next step on his own", Verberk explains. "Europe needs to give a substantial leg-up – in the form of money, of course, so companies are pulled over the threshold. But Europe can play a coordinating role, helping to determine the objectives."
Günther Oettinger, European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, has promised to make a billion euros available for this. A ‘quantum manifesto’ is also being presented during the conference. The manifesto, signed by around 3400 top people from the world of science, research, and business, contains an integral strategy with which Europe can remain in the leading group of the quantum technology sector.
Urgency is required in order not to lag behind other parts of the world. "In the US companies are going ahead more energetically", says Verberk, "on the one hand because they are willing to take more risk, and on the other hand because they have deeper pockets. But in Europe too the business community is hatching plans."
The Netherlands is traditionally strong in quantum communication and computing. Indeed, QuTech in Delft is unique in terms of the collaboration between scientists and engineers. "We really bridge the gap between disciplines", Verberk asserts. "This country is also very good at making complex machines, with companies like Philips, ASML, FEI and many others. So the Netherlands can play a major role in the quantum technology sector."
“Urgency is required in order not to lag behind other parts of the world”
Quantum technology has a brilliant future, but is already being applied by many kinds of companies. These businesses are planning the latest quantum products.
Jürgen Stuhler, Toptica: brain scans without expensive helium
"We make advanced lasers for quantum technology research. Currently we are considering what the next step will be; making quantum sensors, for instance. We are thinking of working on magnetic sensors, which can be used in applications such as brain scans. Existing devices require liquid helium, costing easily 100,000 per year. Devices using quantum sensors need no helium. It takes a lot of time and money to scale up an invention. Innovations often end up in the ‘valley of death’ through lack of funding. To prevent that, you have to collaborate with other companies and institutions. I attend these conferences in particular with the hope of meeting potential partners."
Jessie Qin-Dregely, Single Quantum: unique photon detector
"We are a spin-off of TU Delft and make single-photon detectors, a sort of camera that enables photons to be counted accurately. Photons are particles that carry information. Our detectors are used to develop the next generation of quantum computers. The special aspect of our detectors is that they use recycled helium. This makes us unique in Europe and we intend holding onto that leading position. At this conference we hope to meet scientists with whom we can cooperate, so we can make the very instrument that fits their research project."
Stefan Steel, Tesat Spacecom: decrypting messages via satellite
"We make the laser communication system of the Sentinel satellites used in the European Copernicus programme. These satellites will gather all kinds of data about our climate. This laser communication system transmits vast quantities of data. By adding extra technology we can develop an auxiliary product that makes quantum cryptography possible. From the embassy in The Hague you could use the laser to send a cypher to China, allowing an encrypted message to be decoded. At this conference we want to show potential investors that with a little extra technology this is possible with five years."