Photonics in the early days of the quantum age

New apps and new gaps are emerging as the global industry takes shape
04 April 2022
Ford Burkhart
Quantum states
QEDC’s quantum objectives range widely from new capabilities for lasers, new ways to connect sensors, to ways to test the properties of materials — and more. Credit: AdobeStock

Suddenly the excitement about all things quantum is mounting all along the ecosystem from labs to market sectors. And all along this route, photonics seems to be a key enabling technology.

In January, SPIE Photonics West audiences learned what’s up, behind the scenes, as products are proliferating in this young marketplace that will, one day, be a multibillion-dollar industry. Three panelists delved into quantum market issues at a keynote event, launching the SPIE Quantum West activities on the Quantum Hub Stage in San Francisco.

They included John “Jay” Lowell, senior technical fellow in Research and Technology at The Boeing Company, in its Disruptive Computing and Networks section; Celia Merzbacher of SRI International, where she runs the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, or QED-C; and Mark Wippich, an entrepreneur and consultant who is host and sparkplug for the popular Quantum Marketplace on-line events presented by QED-C.

QED-C is supported by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and more than 170 industry, academic, and other members and is managed by SRI International. Merzbacher advises several US quantum research centers, including the Quantum System Accelerator and the Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems Center.

Innovations, the experts say, range from specialized optical features to new capabilities for lasers, to new cables to connect sensors, to ways to test the properties of materials. On the research frontier, the most imminent market impacts will be in the quantum sensor domain, Lowell said in a phone call from his Boeing office in Fairfax, Virginia. And optics and photonics research “will be crucial to those breakthroughs.” The quantum sensors are key, he said, and will be enabled by new photonic components, powered by photonic systems, employing lasers, modulators, frequency converters, and filters.

Jay Lowell, senior technical fellow in Research and Technology at Boeing

Jay Lowell is senior technical fellow in Research and Technology at Boeing. Credit: Boeing

How it all works

For example, Lowell spelled out one challenge. “When you make measurements of atoms, or quantum dots, or vacancy centers, you need to make a precision measurement of those quantum systems.

“You need to use a laser to probe an atomic system, and get a precise measure of a frequency. In turn, that frequency measurement can be converted to an electric field measurement, or a magnetic field, or to some inertial force.

“Those kinds of measurements are fundamental — magnetic, electric or inertial — those three underpin all the sensors on the market today. And classical sensors work, but not as precisely, not as accurately as will quantum sensors.”

More precise quantum sensing

New quantum sensors will be more precise with their specific measurements. “That improvement in precision will allow us to see things that can’t be measured by classical sensors,” Lowell said.

He described why The Boeing Company is interested in measuring inertial forces. “They make up the core elements of navigational systems, in almost all of our platforms,” he said, “aircraft, submarines or underwater vehicles, and satellites. All of them use inertial navigational systems. We are concerned about having to act where an adversary is trying to deny us access to GPS.”

And better quantum inertial sensor systems will mean less dependence on GPS and that, Lowell said, “is good for our government customers.”

Although some gaps remain, the supply chains are already delivering many new features designed to perform at ultra-low temperatures, near absolute zero.

Just take a look at the QED-C site, under that consortium’s Quantum Marketplace menu, and you’ll see the details on innovations from more than 100 companies already on board with products. They display a wide range of skills and market items.

We asked Merzbacher how the Quantum Marketplace (QM) members who speak at webinars hope to benefit from those appearances. “QED-C members who present at the QM webinars are able to showcase their company’s products and capabilities,” she said.

Celia Merzbacher of SRI International

Celia Merzbacher, of SRI International, runs the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, or QED-C. Credit: SRI International/Businesswire

“Those who attend learn about suppliers in the quantum supply chain. As a result of the webinars, suppliers have found new customers and collaborations have been initiated.” The categories of marketplace companies on display at the QM site include: applications and systems: ranging from AOSense to Zapata Computing; software: from IBM to Vapor Cell Technologies; hardware components: from ColdQuanta to Quantum Opus; services: from JanisULT to US Advanced Computing Infrastructure Inc.; and End Users: from Montana Instruments to Super.tech Labs.

In the first year of webinars, the QM team presented QED-C members speaking about a wide range of topics including lasers, quantum sensors, cryogenic technologies, entanglement, quantum timing, fabrication services, through to RF/microwave control electronics.

 “The audience has been growing,” Merzbacher said, “and the webinars are now available to the public. We hope that reach will continue to expand.” Spotlight videos from each webinar are posted on the Quantum Marketplace website and are available on YouTube.

In addition to the webinars, QED-C has other activities under way to further its goals of enhancing the quantum marketplace, Merzbacher said. They will focus on: 

  • Benchmark tools for measuring progress (the first published tool is for benchmarking a quantum computer’s ability to run specific algorithms)
  • A model/tool for prioritizing investments in quantum-enabling laser technologies
  • Evaluating and strengthening the quantum supply chain

Research and development

Merzbacher, a materials scientist now immersed in quantum markets and based at SRI in Washington, D.C., gets to enjoy a front-row seat in the early days of this new era. Part of the excitement is about the expectations for new product development to fill key gaps.

“Many aspects of quantum information technologies are still in the R&D stage,” Merzbacher said. “Components are not standardized or validated for the applications.”

Her mission is easily stated, said Merzbacher: “We are growing the quantum industry.” And it will take collaboration among many stakeholders.

Her consortium seeks to promote the best work of new smaller companies developing the support technologies. “We are not picking winners,” she said. “We enable them.”

That is part of how her high-tech ecosystem is creating things on the very early days on this frontier. “It’s very exciting,” Merzbacher said.

Getting superconducting quantum computers to the marketplace will call for imaginative approaches. “It’s still an emerging industry,” she said.

QED-C is building upon substantial investments in basic research by government agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, NIST and the Department of Defense. “We are assessing different quantum-based applications to identify needs for optics and lasers,” Merzbacher said.

“We are trying to enable the ultimate use cases by encouraging development of a robust supply chain.”

The QED-C is well positioned to encourage quantum solutions to fill needs for many specialized control components needed for superconducting quantum computers.

Since many quantum systems are about interactions of light, one challenge is how to get light in and out, in a controlled environment, with just the right temperature and a vacuum.

“Integrated photonics will be essential, creating specialized packaging and controlled extreme environments with the ability for input and output of light and other signals,” Merzbacher said.

Much of the work still happens inhouse at various companies, she said.

“There are some potential apps in the nearer term, in areas related to sensor technology,” she said. “Today, the research sector is itself a significant market, but there’s a lot of growth, as research leads to development, deployment and use. They are creating stepping stones to the ultimate goal of commercial technology.”

Some early products moving through the quantum pipeline are in areas of sensing capabilities, for example involving gravimetry. And a few of those breakthrough products are commercially available today.

To illustrate these breakthroughs, experts often cite one company that has worked with NASA on gravimetry challenges — the creative team at AOSense, an employee-owned company based in Sunnyvale, California.

Merzbacher said it shows how smaller companies are creating first generation technology.

“It’s a prime example of a company that is creating innovative products with novel capabilities,” she said. “Their products are very specialized,” she said, noting that the firm creates technology used for measuring incredibly small variation in gravity fields. 

Satellite gravimetry

Working with a NASA team at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, AOSense has demonstrated a novel quantum sensor for satellite gravimetry. AOSense has developed quantum sensors and atomic clocks since 2004, developing advanced sensors for precision navigation and timing.

Other quantum pioneers have entered the early stages of developing electromagnetic sensors for brain imaging. “If we didn’t have to put the patient into an MRI machine, but could monitor them doing normal activity, we could get new and useful information about what’s going on in their brain,” Merzbacher said. “That technology is still down the road but it will provide us with important new capabilities. There’s a lot of potential along those lines.”

Much of the research in quantum photonics — taking advantage of quantum properties of light and matter interactions — is going to scale up in the near future, she predicted.

NASA’s Goddard-AOSense terrestrial proof-of-concept gravity gradiometer

NASA’s Goddard-AOSense team built this terrestrial proof-of-concept gravity gradiometer. Credit: NASA.

With the expected growth in quantum photonics, workforce needs are also stepping up. Workforce training programs have appeared across the US, but questions remain on how to structure that training.

 “There’s a strong pull for people to come into this field. And yet, it’s not immediately clear how to actually train the quantum workforce,” said Dr. Prineha Narang, assistant professor of Computational Materials and Applied Science at Harvard University and Chief Technical Officer of Aliro Quantum. He was part of a University of Colorado study.

The good news is that the new jobs often will not require a PhD in physics, Merzbacher said.

QED-C has gathered data showing that many positions that companies will fill do not require many quantum-specific skills. Basic coursework in software engineering or in conventional skills like communications and business, along with a basic introductory course to understand quantum science may be enough to create an advantage in seeking a position.

Quantum physics, Merzbacher said, is ubiquitous and characteristic of nature at small scales.

“We just have to learn how to harness it.” In turn, developing quantum computers poses unprecedented engineering challenges.”

The industry side, said Lowell, will need components working at specific wavelengths that match the quantum systems that they are measuring. “If the photonics industry can meet those needs,” Lowell said, “there are great partnerships to be had in the future.”

Ford Burkhart is a science and technology writer based in the US. A version of this article appeared in the 2022 Photonics West Show Daily.

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