This strontium end cap ion trap could measure time up to 1000 times more accurately than current atomic clocks

Quantum technology could offer alternative to GPS

GPS-free navigation and ultra-accurate time keeping are just some of the potential applications that could come out of the multi-billion quantum technology market, experts say.

The Ministry of Defence's (MOD) Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) is presenting a number of  research projects trying to bring the science of quantum mechanics to the marketplace at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) today.

Projects showcased include a table-top atom interferometer to provide ultra-precise, highly reliable positional data for submarines at depth, where traditional GPS satellite navigation systems will not work.

There will also be presentations on the world's first portable optical clock created by the University of Birmingham, which uses laser light rather than the microwave radiation utilised in traditional atomic clocks, to offer up to 100 times more precise time-keeping.

Neil Stansfield, Head of Knowledge, Innovation, and Futures Enterprise at Dstl said: "The defence industry often acts as a pioneer in the development of new technologies and the potential benefits of a future in which we can navigate by inner space rather than outer space will impact both the military and civilian world.

“Quantum Timing, Navigation and Sensing (TNS) technologies could bring game-changing advantages to the UK defence sector and support markets measured in the billions, here in the UK and around the world.

“Whilst there are some significant obstacles, it's exciting to see how well-placed the UK is on the global stage to address the significant technical and systematic challenges that remain in commercialising quantum technologies and accelerating exploitation. “

Recent advances in the field of Quantum TNS are based around ultra-cold atoms cooled with lasers to temperatures a billion times colder than outer space making them extremely slow moving and incredibly sensitive to changes in the local magnetic and gravitational field.

Their lack of movement also makes them ideal for atomic clocks which utilise the ultra-regular absorption and release of radiation by their electrons during energy shifts as a highly accurate pendulum.

Current atomic clocks are reliable to one second every billion years, with this limit created by the occasional collision of atoms within the clock, but laser cooling the atoms until they are near stationary significantly reduces this effect.

In addition they exhibit strange quantum phenomenon such as entanglement that links two physically separated quantum systems, which means that if two quantum systems go through slightly different environments, combining them gives information about the environment of one path verses the other.

This can be used to create atom interferometers that can in theory be used for navigation and  provide orders of magnitude better performance than conventional technologies such as GPS, which also cannot be used underwater or indoors and is vulnerable to being blocked either by illegal jamming devices or solar weather activity.

Bob Cockshott, Positioning, Navigation and Timing expert at NPL, said: "Whilst the most immediate applications are in the defence field, future Q-Nav technologies could also have significant civilian applications across a wide variety of activities, covering high frequency trading, network synchronisation, robust and ubiquitous navigation, geo-surveying and mineral prospecting.

“Our hope is that today's showcase will inspire electronics designers and manufacturers across the country to take advantage of the opportunities on offer and establish leading positions for themselves within important future supply chains for the coming decades.

“As with the technology itself, the timing of today's event is significant. With the first applications potentially ready for market in five years, now is the critical moment time to consider the opportunities provided by quantum."

Presently though the use of ultra-cold atoms is limited to the laboratory by the impractical size and cost of the instruments required, which is why the projects presented at today's Showcase are also investigating miniaturisation procedures and the potential use of new materials to reduce costs and increase their practicality for industry.

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