Five minutes with Tim Ballance, Lead Scientist at ColdQuanta
We spoke to Dr Tim Ballance, Lead Scientist at ColdQuanta UK, to find out more about the mind-boggling quantum technologies they are developing from their technical workspace on the ground floor of our Oxford Centre for Innovation.
Advances in technology are defined in ages. Enter the quantum age. Tim says, “the impact of quantum technology will lead to fundamental changes in the way we compute, the way we communicate and the way we sense and interact with our environment.”
Quantum computing is merely the tip of the quantum information iceberg. Quantum timekeeping, electromagnetic detection, radar, bioimaging, and other quantum devices will feed new quantum application systems. Tim foresees “quantum technologies providing an unprecedented level of performance, security, privacy and computational speed to address some of the world’s most challenging problems.” And ColdQuanta is definitely part of that future. They have just received a £2.8 million in Innovate UK grants to lead a wide-ranging consortium of companies across the UK to develop a new quantum positioning system or QPS.
Based on thirteen years’ research and development, ColdQuanta’s USP is their Quantum Core™ Technology which – in simplistic terms – uses lasers to cool atoms down to unfathomably cold temperatures – close to absolute zero. That’s colder than anywhere we know about in the natural universe. At one ten billionth of a degree above absolute zero, or -273.15 C, the Quantum Core™ creates a rare state of matter or Bose-Einstein condensates. Sometimes called the fifth state of matter, these gaseous clouds of atoms stop behaving like individual atoms and start to behave like a collective or wave.
Control of these ultra-cold atoms – individually or as a cloud – can enable everything from atomic time-keeping to quantum logic. The resulting systems can be deployed on Earth or in space. “In fact,” says Tim “ColdQuanta’s Core Technology is currently part of NASA/JPL’s Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL for short) and is orbiting round us right now in the International Space Station to test behaviour of quantum matter in space.”
While the Colorado office is getting to grips with quantum computers, ColdQuanta UK is currently working on three projects. The first, and Tim says the most exciting, is the development of a quantum positioning system (QPS) or gyroscope that will allow accurate navigation by measuring rotation and acceleration very precisely. The ColdQuanta QPS will help overcome vulnerabilities associated with current GPS (or GNSS) systems, making it completely spoof-proof; you will be able to know exactly where you are whether you are in a tunnel, underwater, or in a black box with no windows. Very James Bond. This is the project that they’ve received Innovate UK funding for as it has commercial potential in things like automated shipping as well as use in defence systems, aircraft and trains, and one day could be miniaturised for use in cars and even mobile phones.
ColdQuanta has also developed laboratory equipment and systems to allow people to create and manipulate quantum matter for research purposes. The first is an optical device – commonly known by its acronym PICAS (meaning Photonically Integrated Cold Atom Source) which produces a high-flux beam of laser-cooled atoms. It has just been launched on the market and they have already sold 15 to labs across North America, Europe and Asia. Not bad at the price point of a small car! They are now working with a laser company on a linked project called PICAS Squared – basically a control system for the PICAS.
ColdQuanta was spun out of the University of Colorado, Boulder, by Professor Dana Anderson and Reiner Kunst. For many years, Dana worked with Noble Prize-winning physicists Cornell, Weiman as well as ColdQuanta co-founder Theodor Hänsch on cold atom technology but saw it had wide potential and started ColdQuanta in 2007. The Oxford arm was started in 2015 and Tim –plucked from his work on quantum computing at the University of Oxford – was their first employee. They are now a team of five but will expand to 12 this time next year to complete the three-year Innovate UK project.
Tim loves working at The Oxford Centre for Innovation – well that was before lockdown, of course – and being part of the community of innovators and start-ups that flourish in our innovation centres. Thanks to ColdQuanta an exciting new field of 21st-century science is happening right in the centre of Oxford. We wish them the very best of luck.