Trinity physicist to lead €2.9 million Quantum Technologies Flagship project

Posted on: 01 November 2022

Professor Mark Mitchison has won an EU Quantum Technologies Flagship research grant worth €2.9 million. He will lead a team of researchers seeking to understand nature’s timekeeping limitations and querying whether precision measurements can be more energy efficient.

The grant will fund the ASPECTS consortium, which brings together leading experimental and theoretical physicists across Europe with the common goal of uncovering the energetic resources needed for precision measurement.

“We are currently at the forefront of a new technological revolution, where the strange behaviour of tiny quantum particles such as atoms is being exploited to build the next generation of super-fast computers, secure communication devices, and ultra-precise sensors, said Professor Mitchison, the coordinator of ASPECTS.

“Quantum technology promises to become a huge industry over the next few decades, and the Quantum Technologies Flagship was designed to kickstart that activity in Europe.”

Quantum technologies are based on a bizarre feature of the subatomic world known as quantum superposition, which allows electrons to have seemingly contradictory properties, such as being in two different places at once.

Governments and private companies – including tech giants like Google and IBM – are now racing to build quantum computers and other technologies that exploit this weird phenomenon. Since quantum technologies work in a fundamentally different way, they can solve problems that would be unthinkable with current digital devices.

One area where quantum technologies have a clear advantage is in precision measurement. For example, satellite navigation systems rely on very precise timestamps provided by atomic clocks orbiting the Earth. Such precise measurements cost energy, but could they be more energy-efficient? Answering this question requires applying concepts from thermodynamics — a theory that was developed in the 19th century to describe steam engines – to cutting-edge quantum technologies.

Professor Marcus Huber, principal investigator of ASPECTS at Technical University of Vienna, explains:

“The second law of thermodynamics implies that essentially everything in this Universe can serve as a clock, from falling grains of sand or light reflected on a pendulum to decaying radioactive material. But what are the ultimate limits of timekeeping? The answer both gives insight into the very foundation of what it means to measure time and guides practical clock design with resource efficiency in mind.”

ASPECTS will address this question using state-of-the-art electronic devices.

Professor Simone Gasparinetti, principal investigator at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, said:

"We will leverage our expertise in superconducting circuits to build a set of novel, one-of-a-kind quantum machines. By watching these machines at work, and carefully measuring fluctuations in their output we will experimentally unveil the trade-off between precision and efficiency in small quantum systems. Recording the fluctuations of these tiny machines is a demanding task that will require state-of-the-art techniques to amplify and measure microwave fields at the quantum level."

Professor Natalia Ares, principal investigator at Oxford University, elaborates:

“As we gain increasingly precise control of quantum devices, we can finally reveal the limitations that nature imposes to one of the most interesting types of machines, clocks. By making use of semiconductor devices that allow for the control of single electrons and that are able oscillate as a quartz clock, we will be able to put to the test the most fundamental limits of timekeeping. Our findings might help inform the design of complex quantum circuits as we better understand the thermodynamics of quantum machines.”

ASPECTS is among a raft of projects funded by Horizon Europe aiming to develop emerging technologies that will assist in transitioning to a greener and more sustainable economy. Professor Javier Prior, principal investigator at University of Murcia, comments:

“Understanding the thermodynamic cost of precision could ultimately help us to design more energy-efficient measuring devices on other platforms, like the diamond quantum sensors studied in my lab in Murcia. But aside from practical applications, it is crucial for our future prosperity to invest in basic scientific research, in order to build a European knowledge base in quantum technologies.”


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