The emerging R & D sector offers opportunities for economic development
“We either climbed the train now or we’ll be left behind,” warns Josep Maria Martorell, who was the General Director of Research of the Generalitat and is currently deputy director of the.
The train is that of quantum technologies, an emerging sector from which a new industry is expected to develop. And with this new industry are expected to arrive at innovative products that will one day be used daily. It is a sector in which today is investigated and in which in the not too distant future, possibly towards the second half of the next decade, jobs will be created and money will be made.
“China and the United States are betting strongly on quantum technologies, they are moving very fast,” says Martorell. Not to be outdone, the European Commission (EC) announced before the summer the creation of the Quantum Flagship, a ten-year and a billion euro project that has set the goal of “positioning Europe at the forefront of the second quantum revolution that is appearing all over the world. ” And within Europe, Barcelona and its metropolitan area “are in a position to play an important role,” said industrial engineer Josep Maria Vilà, an advisor to Barcelonaqbit, a think tank that advocates boosting this emerging sector in Catalonia.
The first quantum revolution to which the EC refers was that carried out a century ago physicists like Max Planck and Albert Einstein, who discovered that the universe obeys to the strange laws of the quantum physics.
According to these laws, waves and particles are two sides of the same reality. Waves like light are composed of particles; and particles of matter, in turn, behave like waves.
The consequences of quantum physics are anti-intuitive but real. A particle can be at the same time in two different states, what is known as superposition, as in Schrödinger’s famous cat experiment, which was alive and dead at the same time. But as soon as one observes what state the particle is, it can no longer be in the other, so that the cat dies irreversibly at the precise moment in which one looks at it.
On the other hand, different particles may be interlaced. This means that, when one particle is modified, the others are modified instantly even though they are thousands of miles apart.
If the first quantum revolution was scientific, the second will be technological, emphasizes the document Quantum Manifesto. A new era of technology, which the EC published in May. It will take advantage of the laws of quantum physics to control the particles and use them for unsuspected purposes.
An example: thanks to interlacing, information can be encrypted more securely than current technologies. In fact, if someone intercepted the particles carrying a coded message, it would be discovered instantly because it would affect other particles with which they are interlaced. Communications security is, therefore, one of the first fields in which quantum technology will have industrial applications.
Also in the next five years are expected to begin using sensors based on the principles of quantum physics. According to the Quantum Manifesto, these sensors will be useful in construction projects, in geological surveys and in medical diagnosis.
In the longer term, it is expected to use quantum physics to build and program computers capable of performing operations that are beyond the reach of today’s computers. In quantum computing, the United States is ahead of Europe and, within the United States, Google is more advanced than any other company or research center.
“In Spain we have to be well positioned in quantum technologies to take advantage of the opportunity,” said Carmen Vela, Secretary of State for Research, who has played an active role in defending the involvement of Spain in the European project in Brussels. “It’s better to be from the beginning [on the Quantum Flagship of the EC] than to try to get on a car when it’s on the road.”
As with any new technology sector, quantum technologies are likely to favor the emergence of new companies emerging from research groups. The same
phenomenon has been observed in recent years in the biomedical sector, where genome technologies have originated business projects that, in some cases, have made a fortune.
One of these companies, VLC Photonics, from the Universitat de València, has been integrated into the business management group of Quantum Flagship.
In Catalonia, “we have the opportunity to play an important role in quantum technologies thanks to the ICFO [Institut de Ciències Fotòniques]”, says Josep Maria Martorell of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center. ICFO has nine research groups working in this area from which two new business projects have already emerged.
On the other hand, quantum technology products will affect consolidated companies. Communications and financial institutions will not be able to stay away from advances in cybersecurity. It is significant, in this sense, that Telefónica incorporated this year its board of directors to the physicist Ignacio Cirac, director of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching (Germany).
But “we have the impression that our companies are little aware of the opportunities offered by quantum technologies,” says economist Alfonso Rubio, president of the think tank Barcelonaqbit. Based on this organization, the company Entanglement Partners – Rubio is the CEO and Josep Maria Vilà is the President – offers consulting services on quantum technology. “We think there are many companies that are not aware of how they can affect them,” says Rubio. “Our goal is to establish a bridge between the world of research and that of companies.”
Europe’s strategic bet
Quantum technologies will play the third Flagship project (literally flagship) powered by the European Commission. These are ten-year initiatives and a billion euros of budget to boost areas of research that Brussels considers strategic for the future of the EU. The first two flagships, one dedicated to graphene and the other to the human brain, started in 2015. The quantum technology, which is currently in the gestation phase, will begin in 2018. When it comes to an end ten years later , is expected to have given birth to a first generation of companies and products based on quantum physics. The EC plans to finance 500 million euros of the project and the other 500 will be contributed by companies.