25. February 2020

Crime scenes and quantum technology

Why the time is right for establishing a network of quantum technologies in the Berlin-Brandenburg region

Andreas Wicht and Markus Krutzik © WISTA Management GmbH
Andreas Wicht and Markus Krutzik (right) want to establish a quantum technology network in Berlin-Brandenburg © WISTA Management GmbH

A visit of the Ferdinand-Braun-Institute (FBH) in Berlin-Adlershof conjures up images of a crime scene: people in white hazmat suits walk along the corridors, visitors must put blue covers over their shoes. Leave no trace is the general rule. Researching the fundamentals of quantum technology (QT) requires the highest cleanliness.

In each of its laboratories, the team of the FBH, the Ferdinand-Braun-Institute, Leibniz-Institut für Höchstfrquenztechnik, researches and develops high-precision optoelectronics. In Europe, it is leading the field of aluminium gallium arsenide diode lasers. They are extremely compact and can be custom-built for a range of different wave lengths. These light sources are based on the principles of quantum physics and are the basis for many applications in quantum technology.

The spectrum of applications is very broad. It ranges from quantum communication to quantum computing, which utilises the quantum entanglement effect in light particles and electrons for high-security data transmission, or to process much larger amounts of data than ever before, to quantum sensor technology and quantum imaging, which facilitate highly sensitive measurement instruments and imaging procedures.

‘Much like the beginning of the internet age, we basically don’t know much about what will one day be possible,’ says Andreas Wicht, head of the FBH’s Joint Lab Quantum Photonic Components. ‘Quantum technologies are still in their infancy. Fundamental lab experiments serving to demonstrate feasibility are only about 30 years old. We are still a long way away from full-scale applications.’ This will require considerable efforts in engineering, says Wicht, to supply developers with a kit of standardised quantum components.

Many others in Adlershof are working on this, including at Wicht’s institute. The entire capital city region is a hot spot for photonics and optical technologies. Research groups at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin focus on high-precision measurement procedures, quantum gases, and experiments with individual protons. The latter are also researched at the Technical University Berlin. Berlin’s Free University offers courses on the theory of quantum optics. There is also a host of very active non-university research institutes, including the Heinrich Hertz Institute, the Leibniz-Institute for Crystal Growth (IKZ), and the Fraunhofer IZM. And a number of companies like eagleyard Photonics, who commercially produce gallium arsenide diode lasers, PicoQuant, a company specialised on single proton applications, and Quartiq, which develop specialised controls.

To better connect regional research facilities with businesses in quantum technology, Markus Krutzik, the head of the FBH’s Joint Labs Integrated Quantum Sensors, initiated InnoQT, an innovation forum for medium-sized companies. A series of workshops will take place on 2-3 March 2020 in Berlin with funding of the Federal Ministry for Education and Research. The project aims at establishing full value creation chains for photonics components and systems for QT applications in the Berlin-Brandenburg region. ‘The area boasts excellent conditions for transferring technologies from science and research into the industry,’ says Andreas Wicht. ‘This is especially true because small and medium-sized companies are particularly good at bringing innovation to market.’

Currently, however, there isn’t yet a distinct QT market. Many entrepreneurs are not yet aware of the benefits of quantum technology for their businesses. It is key to make sure people get to know each other. Torsten Langer, sales and application specialist of PicoQuant, is convinced that this will also benefit his company: ‘The more we connect with others, the better we can react to the demands of potential customers and new areas of application.’

At PicoQuant, the quantum is already in the name. The company develops, manufactures, and distributes devices like lasers with ultra-short pulses and detectors for individual light particles. In life sciences, for example, these can be used to determine the properties of pigments. In quantum optics, they serve to assess whether a light source disseminates only single protons. Such measurement tasks require highly sensitive event timers, which PicoQuant recently showcased at the Photonics West exhibition in San Francisco. Thanks to their extremely short dead-times and high time-resolution, they can guarantee very low proton loss during the measuring process.

The development of high-precision and stable optical clocks highlights the opportunities of applications in quantum sensor technology – which are also advanced by the work done at the FBH. They are based on the transitions between quantum states, which have much larger energy differences than conventional atomic clocks and thus superior precision.

This level of high-precision time measurement makes possible, for example, navigation without GPS and the measuring of the earth’s gravity field. In this case, the next crime scene will be to explore deposits of valuable materials.

By Dr. Uta Deffke for Adlershof Journal