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Scotland ‘could become world-leader in quantum and photonics technology’

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Scotland could become home to a world-leading quantum and photonics clusterHolyrood has been told.

In an interview to mark the first anniversary of the Critical Technology Accelerator (CTA) programme at the University of Glasgow, its programme manager Christopher Leburn said “now is the time” to ensure that expertise grows and transfers into next-generation SMEs.

The CTA launched last April with seed funding from the UK Government. It was one of 11 projects across the Glasgow City Region to receive a share of £100m from the Innovation Accelerator fund. With a sum of £3.4m over two years, the project helps SMEs improve their technology readiness level.

With support from the university’s James Watt Nanofabrication Centre and eight industry partners, chosen SMEs can de-risk their research and development costs.

“These technologies are very difficult, and hard to justify when the equipment is so expensive to access in the early development phase. And it’s not until you scale up those technologies that the cost comes down,” Leburn said.

The programme is currently working on five different projects ranging from super-secure digital communications to next-generation lasers.

Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council and chair of the Glasgow City Region Cabinet added: “The Critical Technologies Accelerator is a vital link between the lab and the market, helping emerging and ambitious firms deliver on their commercial potential.

“Our universities have been home to world-leading research and expertise for many many years. The CTA is a great example of how that is increasingly being utilised to support jobs, growth and productivity.”

One project is developing ultra-secure cryptographic communications for financial transactions, which could be a deterrent to the current rise in fraud causes.

In the UK, fraud more than doubled in 2023, with the total amount coming to £2.3bn.

Conducted in partnership with Sivers and Toshiba, engineers are developing laser technology so that it can act as an “additional layer of encryption”, called quantum key distribution, Leburn explained.

“This is a layer of encryption that theoretically can’t be broken, so your message is received securely, and you will know if it has been tampered with,” Leburn said.

Another initiative is looking into an integrated chip-based laser system, in collaboration with Glasgow-based SME Vector Photonics and Alter. Engineers have developed a technique which allows light to leave through the top of a semi-conductor, rather than through its side as has happened to date – a discovery “helpful” to the additive manufacturing sector, he claimed.

The CTA is working with the SME to prototype different designs, to extract “as much power as possible with a focused beam of light.” According to Leburn, there is also an upcoming opportunity to develop visible versions of these laser systems which could be useful for AR and VR technology. For instance, they could be installed in eyewear via microchips.

The group is also looking into integrating chip-based laser sources into cutting-edge navigation systems, with the help of Alter and Infleqtion.

Once scaled-up, the devices will “provide a more accurate position for your location within time and space,” Leburn said.

Currently, the most sophisticated clock in the world is the size of “multiple photocopiers linked together,” yet this programme is looking to “shrink them” to fit within a car or in “the palm of your hand,” he added.

It is believed this device could have significant applications for the defence and security sector, given that it is “quite easy” to interfere with GPS signals.

Earlier this month, Russia jammed the GPS of an RAF plane carrying UK defence secretary Grant Shapps for half an hour.

British Telecommunications (BT) and Leonardo are working to make energy communication networks more efficient and environmentally friendly, via scaling up optical telecommunications – which use light rays as a medium of propagation.

The team is looking at developing chips which could be integrated into devices, allowing them to pick up optical signals instead of satellite signals, so that connection is never lost.

The optical connection emitters, which use could be placed at the top of buildings or trains.

This advancement could be “transformational” north of the border, given that the most recent Ofcom Data revealed Scotland is home to the top four areas for the worst internet connection in the UK.

The final project is developing superconducting quantum circuits for next-generation quantum computing, which is “the talk at the moment,” Leburn claimed.

The work comes at the same as the University of Edinburgh is set to host the UK’s first next-generation supercomputer – 50 times faster than any existing machine in the country.

In partnership with SeeQC, academics are developing the circuits to allow them to communicate with the “quantum version of binary,” Leburn explained.  Currently, this is done at cryogenic temperatures, so there needs to be a device which can communicate with these qubits in cryogenically cooled environments.

The CTA is now working to apply for new Glasgow innovation zone funding to extend its lifetime, with plans for the next stage to focus on advanced packaging capabilities.

“We have all of these devices, and we must start integrating them together. However, packaging this technology is not trivial. You have different devices made of different materials and they all have to be very carefully aligned together with micron resolution alignment, and then packaged in such a way that they can survive being shot into space, put underground or being put in cryogenic temperatures. And Scotland has a number of key partners who are very good at that. But they all need to be brought together in an ecosystem that’s coherent,” Leburn said.

Aitken added: “The Glasgow City Region’s innovation economy already has a burgeoning international reputation and is central to our ambition to become the most productive, innovative and resilient economy on these islands by 2030. We’ve already secured around £350m in public support in under two years to progress this increasingly important part of our economy, testament in itself to how we’re getting this right.”

Looking ahead, Leburn also hopes the next stage of the CTA will have medical applications.

He added there was already interest in technologies that could be rolled out in the future through the programme, including from Professor Hadi Heidari, who leads the University of Glasgow’s Microelectronics Lab, where his team conducts pioneering research on integrated micro/nanoelectronics design for medical and quantum applications.

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