EQuS researchers at the University of Sydney to open hub for quantum technologies of the future

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 9, 2016 by Marcus Strom. For an interactive, graphic representation of the $10 million quantum lab, visit the website here

In a lab engineered to within an inch of its life, Michael Biercuk​ is working to change the world forever, in ways that even he doesn't quite understand. 

Associate Professor Biercuk has built a room that is one of only five in the world. Each one operates under exacting environmental controls. Two of them are run by the US government, another is run by IBM in Zurich and a fourth is at Harvard University. 

His lab at the University of Sydney cost more than $10 million before a single piece of equipment was installed. Here, science at the size of a billionth of a metre is carried out. It is at this scale where the quantum states of individual atoms and electrons are isolated and manipulated to build the technology of the future.

"The whole idea is to make quantum systems do useful things," Associate Professor Biercuk said. "My job is to work out their fundamental function and build a toolkit of control techniques."

Controlled environment

The room is controlled for electronic interference, magnetic interference, vibration and climate variation. It is always 21 degrees inside, plus or minus 0.025 degrees.

All the air in the room is completely replaced every 68 seconds – yet you cannot feel a breeze.

A detector checks for magnetic field variations a thousand times a second. Should it detect any change – either from a passing truck or the lifts moving in the old Physics Building – it will pump an electronic charge around the walls to counteract the interference.

The "Star Trek doors", as Associate Professor Biercuk calls them, are designed to prevent pressure differentials in the room that could disturb his sensitive laser equipment.

Unleashing quantum strangeness

This lab is just one part of the new Nanoscience Hub at the University of Sydney, which will open next month.

Professor David Reilly, who is building quantum devices at the hub, said that just as the discovery of electromagnetism determined the technological wonders of the 20th century, so quantum mechanics is starting the next scientific revolution.

Central to this will be the development of quantum computing, which will make today's supercomputers seem sluggish.

"The full development of the quantum epoch might take 50 to 100 years," said Professor Thomas Maschmeyer​, director of the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, which will run the hub. But the process has begun.

A quantum system is simply matter as it exists at the nanoscale, such as an atom, an electron, a photon of light.

When you get down to the world of nanometres – billionths of a metre – matter starts to behave very strangely.

One of the founders of quantum mechanics, Danish physicist Niels Bohr​, once said: "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it."

In that sense, this building is truly shocking and strange.

Associate Professor Biercuk and his colleagues want to pull apart this strangeness in order to build the quantum devices of the future, such as quantum computers or room-temperature superconductors. 

Associate Professor Biercuk, Professor Reilly and Professor Benjamin Eggleton run the three flagship projects at the Nanoscience Hub. Associate Professor Biercuk runs quantum simulations; Professor Reilly is building quantum devices; and Professor Eggleton is developing nanoscale photonic circuits. 

Entrepreneurs welcome

Professor Maschmeyer said the optimisation of existing electronic technologies is coming to an end. "Whether that is ride sharing, Airbnb, or mobile app development, it is taking existing information and making it more accessible," he said. "You can do that in your bedroom writing a clever app."

"What we are doing, the next big thing, is big science. And it needs big investment," Professor Maschmeyer said. 

The Nanoscience Hub is the flagship of the institute run by Professor Maschmeyer. As well as being available to a community of nanoscale researchers in medicine, engineering, environmental science chemistry, physics and other sciences, it will be opened up for use by quantum tech entrepreneurs. The building alone cost some $150 million. 

The federal government provided $40 million for the Nanoscience Hub. As well as Associate Professor Biercuk's lab it houses a "cleanroom" and foundry for nanochip manufacture and testing; various other labs; offices for visiting entrepreneurs; lecture theatres; and space for students.

An immediate use of the hub's cleanroom will be for the development of "lab on a chip" technologies that will allow for blood testing for proteins and other disease markers, Professor Maschmeyer said.

Other immediate uses are expected to centre on developing clean energy technologies and the utilisation of Professor Maschmeyer's nanoscale-engineered battery technology.

Associate Professor Biercuk said that we have largely swept the strange aspects of quantum theory under the carpet for the last 100 years. "It is now time to take what were once considered mathematical oddities and use them to power new technologies," he said.

The Sydney Nanoscience Hub will open on April 20, following a public lecture on April 19.

Major funding support

Australian Research Council

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQUS) acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present.