Quantum Sensors
and Timing

Truly discovering what lies beneath the ground, in the sky and the human body and brain with quantum sensing and timing

The quiet quantum sensor technology revolution

We all encounter different sorts of sensors in our everyday lives. From the phones we use, the lights we switch on and the places we visit, sensors surround us, and yet we do not realise the extent of our dependence on them. And yet, with quantum sensors and timing devices now being developed and used in real-world applications, they are quietly changing the way we live.

Quantum sensors have been developed to measure a number of significant things, with a large range of physical parameters. For instance, quantum-enabled brain technology can measure the electrical activity in a person's brain, making it possible to better understand brain conditions such as epilepsy and dementia.

Precise timing could make a significant difference both in everyday life and in fundamental science, offering increased resilience for timing infrastructures and much more. The unparalleled accuracy of these clocks can also help us see beyond standard models of physics and understand some of the most mysterious aspects of the universe, including dark matter and dark energy. Such clocks will also help to address fundamental physics questions such as whether the fundamental constants are really ‘constants’ or they are varying with time.

Quantum clocks exist in only in a handful of laboratories, and they require huge rooms and kilowatts of power. These clocks are the most precise scientific instruments created by humanity to date.

Quantum sensor technology in the real world

Researchers are now working hard to bring quantum sensor research out of the laboratories and into the real world, with the help of industry companies. Quantum sensor technology is urgently needed to strengthen the services which form our critical infrastructure – construction, transport, communications, and other key areas.

Soon, we will hopefully have access to quantum-enabled brain imaging technology, which will not only help to further our understanding of what is often considered to be the most complex part of the human body, but will also improve potential for diagnosis and treatment.

Unknown underground conditions present significant safety risks and economic damage in infrastructure projects. Understanding the underground hazards, such as potential sinkholes and boreholes, as well as existing pipework, would necessitate fewer and more accurate holes being dug for road works and construction projects. This is where quantum gravity sensors come in - this technology will be able to identify worsening hazards before they cause extreme damage and loss of life. The potential is far-reaching - quantum gravity sensor deployment in space will provide precise and accurate measurements of droughts, floods and ocean current levels.

Unprecedented accuracy

Our current clocks run at an uncertainty level of 10–16, deviating by one second every 300 million years. But imagine a clock so precise that it will gain or lose only one second every 30 billion years, a period greater than the age of the universe? This new technology unprecedented accuracy is now not too far away.

Clocks are important tools, not only in our everyday life, but also for technological applications and systems, making it is even more important to ensure time is measured very accurately. Building highly accurate clocks, which are small enough to be easily transportable, would open up myriads of new technological and scientific opportunities.

And it doesn't end with quantum sensors and timing. Quantum magnetometers are able to pick up even the tiniest of magnetic fields which makes them ultra-sensitive and useful as sensors. Once developed, magnetometers can be used for medical imaging, and even to measure current flow inside electric vehicle batteries to estimate their charge, health and detect faults early.


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What are we doing in the UK?

The UK National
Quantum Strategy

The UK government has a well developed National Quantum Strategy.  One of five quantum missions announced  in December 2023 is to ensure that by 2035, there will be accessible, UK-based quantum computers capable of running 1 trillion operations and supporting applications that provide benefits well in excess of classical supercomputers across key sectors of the economy.

The Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing

The UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing (led by the University of Birmingham) is one of four Hubs within the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme. The Hub brings together experts from Physics and Engineering from the Universities of Birmingham, Bangor, Glasgow, Imperial, Nottingham, Southampton, Strathclyde and Sussex, NPL, the British Geological Survey and over 70 industry partners. The Hub has over 100 projects, valued at approximately £100 million, and has 17 patent applications.

The UK National Quantum Technologies Programme

Launched in 2014, and backed by the Government’s £2.5bn National Quantum Strategy, the NQTP builds on a decade of experience to enable the UK to be a leading quantum-enabled economy by 2033, with a world leading sector, where quantum technologies are an integral part of the UK’s future digital infrastructure and advanced manufacturing base, driving growth and helping to build a thriving and resilient economy and society.

Frequently asked questions

Confused about what quantum sensing and timing is all about?
These FAQs might answer your question!

What is quantum technology, and why is it important?

Quantum can be difficult to understand as the traditional assumptions of Newtonian physics do not apply. It relies on the behaviour of microscopic particles, which can be in two places at once and as such become very sensitive to the differences between these places.

Despite the complex nature of quantum, the end-user applications exist in our everyday lives, from trains, to roads and even to measuring brain activity to diagnose and further research into brain conditions.

Quantum sensors will enable resilient and robust technology, and act as the foundation of future innovative quantum technologies.

Who do you work with?

We work with a huge range of companies: from engineering and construction, defence, communications and component manufacturers, and many more! Some examples of our partners include RSK, BAE Systems, BP, BT and National Rail.

What will quantum sensors and accurate timing mean for the future?

Quantum sensor and clocks technology will underpin our critical national services - which is our key services, such as our energy infrastructure and communications network - to provide a solid resilience fit for the future. It is almost like building a sturdier foundation to a house, to ensure stability for the next few hundred years!

Why is accurate timing important?

Quantum timing is like the unseen hero, silently ticking away but holding our communications and digital world together! It is incredible important that timing is accurate across not only the country, but the entire world, to make sure events happen at the right time, and that our systems are synchronised. Inaccurate timestamps will have a knock-on effect in healthcare, navigation and many other sectors, causing delays and an inability to forward-plan with accurate data.

What is cold atom technology?

When cooled to temperatures near absolute zero, atoms unveil their wave-like nature and quantum mechanical laws replace those of classical mechanics. By using finely controlled lasers and magnetic fields, scientists are able to cool small ensembles of atoms down to the lowest temperatures in the universe – just a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero – and thus to access the realm of fully quantum mechanical motion. All the essential parameters of the atomic samples, including the motion, the shape, and the forces between the atoms can be efficiently controlled, making these ideal systems for discovering new quantum behaviour and new states of matter.

Researchers are using cold atom technology to exploit the exceptional properties of quantum matter to realise real-world applications like ultra-precise atomic clocks and interferometers and ‘gravitational cameras’ which can unveil the underworld – from modern urban infrastructure to the buried secrets of Stonehenge.