Quantum sensing: quantum technology you've never heard of

Quantum physics, a significant area in science, has been gaining prominence, particularly in relation to advancements and investments in quantum computing research. However, the focus of most quantum technology investments is on quantum sensing, an expanding field of study.

Quantum computers are anticipated to provide increased computational power and efficiency in the future, but the realization of a fully functional quantum computer remains years away due to engineering challenges. Maintaining a qubit, the fundamental unit of a quantum computer, in a quantum state for an extended period is challenging because any external disturbances cause the system to collapse, rendering it useless. Even minute fluctuations in properties like magnetic and electric fields or temperature can cause a quantum state collapse.

Researchers, however, can leverage this sensitivity to access interactions and phenomena beyond the reach of conventional sensing methods. Quantum sensors, with origins in established techniques like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), use individual nuclei or electrons as qubits to report on their environment. Modern quantum sensors are often highly sensitive magnetic field detectors, offering attributes such as high spatial resolution, low cost, and portability, making them useful across various industries and research areas.

One potential application of quantum sensing is the identification of materials suitable for classical computers. As classical computers evolve, addressing power consumption and size constraints will be crucial. Electrical engineers are exploring new materials like graphene and perovskite, which could surpass traditional silicon-based devices. Quantum sensing aids in understanding the magnetic behavior of these novel materials, essential for selecting those worth further development.

In the realm of molecular biology, quantum sensing offers higher resolution information than traditional techniques like light microscopy. This could potentially answer questions valuable to medical science, such as drug design, neuronal signaling, and disease diagnosis. The new 7-year, ARC Centre of Excellence on Quantum Biotechnology is dedicated to addressing these goals.

Quantum sensing has also found a strong foothold in the mineral resources sector, where it can detect subtle magnetic fields produced by mineral extraction sites. SQUID magnetometers, which use quantised superconducting states as sensors, are already in use for this purpose and can detect magnetic fields much smaller than the Earth’s.

Moreover, given their unique sensitivity, quantum sensors could help scientists explore new physical regimes. They might aid in answering some of physics’ most fundamental questions, such as the nature of dark matter or gravity. SQUIDs have been deployed at the Simons Observatory in Chile to help detect cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. Instead of a magnetic signal, what is detected is the heat generated when a CMB photon collides with a SQUID, disrupting its quantum state.

In conclusion, quantum sensing is a burgeoning area of research that could lead to significant advancements in various fields, from classical computer materials to medical science and even fundamental physics. Its unique sensitivity offers possibilities for accessing interactions and phenomena beyond the reach of conventional methods.

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