Our lives and economies will soon be transformed by quantum technologies as profoundly as they have been by steam, electric traction, radio communications and electronics.
The UK is leading a global race to develop this new quantum era, forging its research strength into market opportunities through a co-ordinated and coherent National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP).
This represents a vibrant, visionary £1 billion partnership between government, academia and industry, one that is fast-tracking quantum knowledge from laboratory to wider society and economic impact.
Many countries have adopted its approach of threading together science, innovation and industry as a model for their own quantum programmes. The NQTP also expresses the UK government view that developing national capability in quantum technologies is not an option, but a necessity and determinant: whole swathes of life, including security, financial, transport, communications, land use and health, are about to be transformed.
Currently, we are just at the cusp of that extraordinary and exciting future: where computers work out in seconds what currently would take thousands of years; cameras see around corners and through mist; the hidden world is visible in 3D maps; medical imaging gives unprecedented insight into neurological disorders such as dementia; atomic clocks are miniaturised and affordable. All are being developed in the UK. Some are already in early use.
How we engage with new quantum technologies as they sweep across the economy, and with the societal step-changes this will mean, is now integral to future UK trading relations, inward investment and position in the world. It is a cornerstone of future prosperity and opportunities.
The NQTP recognises that the UK needs a quantum industry, not just for quantum technologies to be in use, to secure national resilience.
There is a clear government strategy to deliver that quantum-ready economy, one able to exploit its transformative technology, lead in development and benefit from the advances.
The NQTP, which delivers that strategy, is creating the strong, necessary ecosystem to make the new quantum era happen. It works to unleash ideas, maintain UK excellence in scientific research and development, attract and retain talent, and to develop mutually beneficial international relations.
This is paying off. The UK is now a magnet for inward investment and inter-governmental quantum co-operation agreements thanks to what the NQTP represents: national commitment, strong links to industry, a dynamic and world-class research base, and support from state agencies focused on science and engineering.
The NQTP expresses a dynamic global Britain built on technological innovation. The UK is now the third largest quantum developing country in the world, after the USA and China, attracting more start-ups and capital investment than any other European state.
Its joined-up approach is delivering practical, commercial quantum advantage in medical care, environmental protection, communications, defence and security capabilities. Our lead is bringing investment from technological giants as diverse as Honeywell and Amazon, and from already advanced quantum innovators, such as California-based Rigetti Computing.
The NQTP embodies a strong, collaborative ecosystem of support built across the regions and nations of the UK, of robust supply chains developing, high skills training supported, national defence enhanced, security and resilience issues addressed. It supports a culture of jobs and investment stretching across Wales, all of England and to the central belt in Scotland.
The NQTP currently supports 49 quantum start-ups and involves 120 industrial partners. And it is not just new businesses with extraordinary and life-changing potential being established, existing ones are being inspired.
Long-established corporations with global reach, such as Hitachi, Toshiba Research Europe, Teledyne e2v, BT, BP and BAE Systems, are key partners within the NQTP, developing quantum projects across the country with their resources and market expertise.
This rich world of vibrant start-ups and committed established corporations working within the NQTP is making the UK competitive globally in:
- Developing quantum computers. These will impact profoundly on logistics, materials development, artificial intelligence, machine learning, drug discovery, financial services, oil and gas exploration, environmental services, energy management, construction, climate forecasting and transportation.
- Sensing and imaging: making the invisible visible with a new generation of sensing and timing devices will open amazing possibilities in medical diagnostics, climate monitoring, infrastructure development, greenhouse gas regulation, safety systems, security systems, automated / autonomous systems.
- More secure global communications systems will protect, deliver and store data. Quantum computers in the wrong hands pose a challenge to existing public key encryption systems that guard our personal and national information, making connected digital systems vulnerable to crime and malicious interference from other states.
The NQTP is also focused on people, working to inspire interest in quantum as a career to ensure that the UK has the right skills for the high value jobs that quantum technologies create and need.
Start-ups that have grown to valuations measurable in the hundreds of millions of pounds started with NQTP incubation, including quantum computer developer PsiQuantum and quantum communications company KETS.
The NQTP was established in 2014 as a 10 year programme by government scientific research agencies, (EPSRC, STFC, IUK, Dstl) together with NPL, BEIS, GCHQ, MoD and NCSC to build development partnerships. In addition to leading multi-national corporations, the NQTP now includes our world leading research institutes, company spin-outs, systems integrators and existing components suppliers.
It represents a thriving interconnected ecosystem that works with vision and dynamism, searching for quantum opportunities and supporting projects set to deliver enormous economic and societal benefits to the UK.
This collaborative and strategic approach to new era quantum technologies is what sets the UK apart as a vigorous centre for their commercialisation.
The overall aim of NQTP is simpler to express than the science at is heart: to deliver economic prosperity, national security and value to society by nurturing the most exciting UK research talent and the best ideas to commercialise quantum.
In 2020, the NQTP published an updated strategic intent document (PDF, 11MB). The document lays out a new strategic vision for the next 10 years to create a “quantum enabled economy”.
Why quantum technologies?
Quantum technologies are not just a development, but a step-change to a healthier, wealthier and globally competitive UK. They represent a key part of the digital backbone needed for future prosperity, security and resilience.
Similar assessments have been made by most developed economies on their own behalf. This has led to widespread government initiatives around the world to develop quantum-enabled products and services in an increasingly competitive race.
It is not enough to be simply ready to receive quantum technologies. Their impact is going to be so profound and so integral to the security, defence and resilience of nations that no reliance can be put on developments in competitor countries being shared or available. It is crucial, therefore, to develop our own capabilities.
What are ‘quantum technologies’?
Quantum technologies are developments based on controlling nature at the molecular level of atoms, photons, electrons and condensed matter. It is the world not explained by Newton’s laws of motion, thermodynamics or Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism.
Earlier understanding gave us laser and transistors in the twentieth century. Now scientists and engineers are able to increasingly control and exploit what are known as ‘quantum effects’ for the new quantum era. These include:
- Superposition: the ability of particles to be in two or more states at once.
- Entanglement: the phenomenon that means particles interact even when separated by large distances.
- Uncertainty: that it is impossible to measure particle position and momentum at the same time.
The result of this scientific know-how is what is opening the door to a new wave of commercial advances. For example, potentially allowing pharmaceutical companies to identify, screen and simulate new drugs in a fraction of the cost and time currently needed.
Where are new quantum technologies today?
The NQTP is delivering projects to different timelines. Those close to commercial viability include:
- A more precise and ground-based atomic clock that will reduce dependence on global navigation satellite systems, which are vulnerable to malicious and accidental disruption. Precise and secure time keeping is crucial to critical infrastructure services, such as energy supply, safe transport links, 5G mobile communications, data networks, health care and electronic financial transactions. It is estimated that the impact on the UK of a 5-day satellite outage would be £5.2 billion.
- A new type of wearable brain scanner that allows people to move freely whilst being scanned. This is already now in early real-world use, giving an unprecedented window on brain function and new hope to people suffering from neurological illnesses, such as epilepsy. It also means an option to scan babies and young children for neurological disorders for the first time, allowing for earlier diagnosis.
- A revolutionary gravity sensor that detects hidden structures such as pipes, sinkholes and drainage systems accurately, building a 3D map from the density of material around it. This will significantly cut costs and delays for road works, construction and rail repairs. Exploration and national defence capabilities will also be reshaped as hidden structures and nature can be revealed.
- A quantum gas imaging camera to monitor for methane gas, the second greatest greenhouse gas contributor to climate change when not burned off or captured by the oil, gas and fracking industries. Detectors use quantum principles to extend accessibility and sensitivity to non-visible wavelengths of infrared and ultraviolet.
The range of developments which the NQTP is supporting also includes:
Quantum enhanced imaging
This will revolutionise how we see the world providing opportunities in not just imaging, but range finding in low light and low-costs multi-spectral imaging technologies.
Applications with an impact on microscopes and telescopes are expected within five years, with implications for defence and environmental monitoring. There could be applications also for medical devices.
Quantum secure communications
The world is increasingly dependent on digital data transmissions and storage for everything from e-commerce to bank transactions, government infrastructure and defence. But this is also a vulnerability. Quantum secure communication systems use quantum effects to distribute encryption keys to secure the information. Early users of secure quantum encryption systems will be governments, their agencies, the finance, health, security, defence and space sectors.
Quantum acceleration and navigation devices
Inertial measurement units (IMU) allow navigation by measuring acceleration and rotation without needing to connect to a satellite system. A quantum IMU, which is expected, would offer a thousand times the accuracy of existing systems. This would unlock a future for indoor navigation devices, navigating inside complex structures, or guiding underwater autonomous vehicles.
Can quantum technologies help combat climate change?
Quantum technologies could play a key role in fighting climate change, whilst also transforming areas such as land use, transport and energy.
Within the NQTP are examples of industry and academia working together to meet the climate challenge, whilst also meeting the need for industry to remain competitive and strong. They include developing a new generation of batteries to give economic opportunities, as well as better air quality, whilst meeting the COP16 aim to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
Development programmes within the NQTP that address the climate challenge are working particularly on quantum sensors, which can show what is going on inside a battery in incredible detail. This could, for example, identify defects during production, significantly reducing risk of failure and fires.
In addition, quantum gravity sensors promise advances. These will make monitoring carbon sequestration possible, which may be vital for enforceable gas emission limits. They could also provide information about underground water supplies, helping mitigate floods and droughts that may be a consequence of climate change around the world.
Around 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from infrastructure. It is clear we need to bring forward ways to decarbonise new, and existing, infrastructure assets with urgency. Quantum technologies offer potential solutions across the whole infrastructure lifecycle, from the earliest stages in infrastructure planning, where the greatest carbon reduction opportunities lie, through to construction techniques and optimisation.
The eight partner organisations that make up the NQTP are detailed on our partners page.
Governance of the programme is provided by three groups: the Programme Board, the Strategic Advisory Board and the NQTP Delivery Group.