—adapted from a story for The West Australia, by Matt Mckenzie
Cheaper medicines and safe transport of hydrogen are top targets for businesses potentially spinning out of quantum physics at UWA.
The field of quantum science and technology studies the behaviour of particles at extremely small scales and has contributed to major scientific advances, including the semiconductors used in smartphones and computers.
Quantum sensing, communications and computing are the next frontiers for the field, and could become an Australian industry worth $2.2 billion by 2030 according to the 2023 National Quantum Strategy.
Leading the way are the labs underneath UWA’s physics building in Crawley, part of the Australian Research Council Centres of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQUS) and Dark Matter Particle Physics (CDM).
UWA research associate and EQUS Research Fellow Jeremy Bourhill’s hunt to unlock the secrets of dark matter using quantum physics may also provide a boost for medical manufacturing.
Dr Bourhill developed a material to align magnetic fields, which can be used to improve the purity of chemicals, especially for drug-making.
A small change in a molecule—whether it is left- or right-handed—can have huge implications: a prominent example is the drug thalidomide, which treats cancer but also causes serious birth defects.
Scientists believe the cause of that extreme contrast may be as simple as the molecules of the chemical being flipped on an axis.
Dr Bourhill told The West Australian the medical industry was spending billions of dollars annually to ensure drug purity.
His 3D-printed device could help drugs be filtered at a larger scale and speed up the process, bringing down costs and reducing side-effects.
Work is under way to measure up the commercialisation potential of the technology.
“We wouldn’t have invented this if we weren’t looking for dark matter,” Dr Bourhill said. “You need to come up with new ways of looking at the Universe, and then naturally you can create new technology that has these unforeseen applications.”
Also linked to UWA research is EQUS start-up Jovian Tech, set up in 2022 to develop sensors that gauge hydrogen purity, helping improve safety during transport of the famously flammable fuel.
The labs have already produced some big success stories, including developing precise measurement technology using sapphires in 1998: researchers launched a business, Poseidon Scientific Instruments, which was later purchased by Raytheon in a $US22 million package.
But Dr Bourhill’s driving passion has been discovering the secrets of the Universe.
Dark matter is theorised to make up 85% of the mass in the Universe and believed to have a key role in the observed behaviour of galaxies and other massive objects, but it has not yet been experimentally verified.
Researchers use special fridges to lower the temperature of helium close to the coldest level possible, about −273 degrees.
“That helps to reduce activity, so sensors can listen out for tiny signs of dark matter interacting with the world,” Dr Bourhill said.
“Finding that dark matter signal is one of the ten grandest problems in physics.
“To try and see something no one’s ever seen before, you need to look in a way no one’s ever looked before.”
The global quantum race, particularly computing, has accelerated in recent years and almost $US2.4 billion ($3.5 billion) was invested into quantum tech start-ups in 2022, McKinsey estimates.
This project is funded by EQUS’ Translation Research Program.