Sensors lead the quantum revolution – report

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

Nov 27, 2023

  • Quantum computing is attracting development money and the headlines, but quantum sensors have application across a myriad of markets and are available now
  • Quantum computing model relies heavily on shared access to immensely expensive hardware…
  • … while quantum sensing has the potential to sell in very high volumes
  • In terms of monetary value, it will be 2034 before both technologies will be running in parallel

The hype swirling around quantum technologies is focused almost entirely on quantum computers. It’s easy to see why: The “classic” upside-down chandelier-shaped devices are things of beauty in themselves and have captured the public imagination. With good reason they frequently feature in popular culture and in science fiction books, films and TV programmes. Quantum computers are also interesting and attractive to the general public because of the mysterious and seemingly magical way that they can initiate and manipulate quantum states to provide, in a matter of seconds or minutes, solutions to problems that would take an orthodox supercomputer many years to resolve.

However, there is another important quantum technology having an impact on the world – quantum sensors. As yet, they are little mentioned in the mainstream media despite working commercial examples having been around for half a century. For example, did you know that MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners are quantum sensors? They work by tracking changes in the magnetic spin of single hydrogen atoms to build up an image of the inside of a human body.

Work on improving quantum sensor efficiency and utility is proceeding at pace, mainly because they have huge potential to be applied in a wide range of sectors, including communications technology, positioning systems, healthcare, transport, atomic clocks, geophysical research, prospecting for minerals and other natural resources, seismology and, of course, in military applications such as quantum radar and sonar.

Quantum sensors use the fundamental properties of atoms, light and quantum mechanics (including quantum entanglement, quantum interference and quantum state squeezing) and miniscule amounts of energy and matter to detect and measure very small changes in attributes, such as acceleration, electric and magnetic fields, frequency, gravity, pressure, rotation and temperature. The quantum states generated are incredibly sensitive to their outside environment, which is a massive problem in quantum computing but a big asset in quantum sensing.

Quantum computers and sensors share quantum attributes but their markets are very different

So what’s the current state of the quantum sensor sector? Cambridge, England-based IDTechEx, a provider of independent market research and business intelligence has published its ‘Technology Innovations Outlook 2024-2034’, which gives insights into a number of areas of technology innovation, including quantum sensors.

The author, senior technology analyst Dr Tess Skyrme, writes that despite quantum computers and quantum sensors sharing attributes, such as entanglement, superposition and tunnelling, the market and prospects for the two adjacent technologies differ greatly. Certainly quantum computing gets the headlines and the lion’s share of development money but, as Dr Skyrme points out, the processing abilities of a quantum computer are “largely market vertical agnostic.”

This stands in stark contrast to quantum sensors, which come in a wide range of devices that are much more application specific, and run the gamut “from remote current sensing in electric vehicles and biomagnetic brain scanning to underground mapping and precision navigation. As such, the value offered by quantum sensing is specific within the industries for aerospace, automotive, geophysical surveying, and medical imaging. This technology-to-application specificity leads to a more fragmented ecosystem than quantum computing, diluting hype and competition.”

However, the fact that quantum sensors don’t get the intense coverage afforded to quantum computers doesn’t mean they’re not attracting funding and the attention of national governments. As the report makes clear, “one of the biggest influences on the speed at which quantum technology will come to market is funding.” And it seems funding for quantum sensing by governments is, in fact, broadly comparable to and possibly even greater than that being channelled into quantum computing. 

On the other hand, private investment into quantum computing companies is booming and, the IDTechEx report says, could “limit the speed at which quantum sensing technology can be commercialised long term, as many of the challenges for component manufacture and miniaturisation depend on high capital investment into specialist fabrication facilities.”

It continues, “While significant progress is being made to miniaturise quantum sensing technology using semiconductor and MEMS fabrication techniques, many existing fabs have not invested in going quantum – instead focusing on more established, high-volume applications. Without more ‘quantum fabs’, opportunities for spin-outs to operate with a fabless business model are limited, which could stall the industry.”

However, quantum sensing has the potential to sell high volumes of hardware such as for precision timing and inertial navigation systems, quantum gyroscopes, accelerometers and chip-scale atomic clocks, while the current quantum computing model relies heavily on shared access to very high-value hardware. This, according to the IDTechEx report, will give the quantum sensor market an edge in terms of market impact and value compared with the massively high-cost quantum computer hardware sector over the next decade. Indeed, the report has it that, next year alone, the quantum sensor market will generate sales of more than six times the revenues generated by quantum computing hardware.

And in the future, due to new semiconductor techniques that use organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) to detect magnetic fields, smartphones could function as portable quantum sensors, notes this report from The Science Times

It’s a long haul, but 10 years down the road, both types of quantum technologies are expected to be at the point of running in parallel, in terms of value, as demand for quantum computers increases and the current small and massively expensive installed base of the devices begins to grow and prices start to drop. Not only that, by then some quantum sensing markets will be at saturation point and their sales will slow.

You can find out more about these technology platforms in IDTechEx’s reports, Quantum Sensors Market 2024-2044 and Quantum Computing 2023-2043.

- Martyn Warwick, Editor in Chief, TelecomTV

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