Quantum spin-offs: UWA research wins are gaining critical mass

—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.

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.