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Exploring the unanswered questions of our universe with quantum technologies

Seven new projects which aim to transform our understanding of the universe, answering key questions around dark matter and black holes, using quantum technologies, have received a total of £31 million of funding from UK Research and Innovation.

The projects are supported through the Quantum Technologies for Fundamental Physics programme, a new programme that is part of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme and aims to demonstrate how the application of quantum technologies will advance the understanding of fundamental physics questions.

A selection of the projects, on which several Quantum City partners collaborate, include:

Searching for variations of fundamental constants of nature

QSNET is a multi-disciplinary consortium which aims to search for spatial and temporal variations of fundamental constants of nature, using a network of quantum clocks. The project, which has received £3.7 million in funding, involves investigators from Quantum City partners, the UK Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Timing and NPL.

QSNET proposes to build a national network of advanced atomic, molecular and highly-charged ion clocks. The network will achieve unprecedented sensitivities in testing variations of the fine structure constant and the electron-to-proton mass ratio. These are two of the parameters of the Standard Model of particle physics, which is the pillar of our understanding of the Universe, but that famously fails to describe 95% of its content: the so-called dark matter and dark energy. QSNET will test the fundamental assumption that the constants of the Standard Model are immutable, as this could be the key in solving the dark matter/dark energy enigma.

Investigating dark matter and detecting gravitational waves

The Atom Interferometer Observatory and Network (AION), which has been awarded £7.2 million in funding, is a consortium project comprising Imperial College London, Kings College London, the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the University of Liverpool and the University of Birmingham (which leads the UK National Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Timing).

This interdisciplinary team of academics will develop the science and technology to build and reap the scientific rewards from the first large-scale atom interferometer in the UK. This programme of research will enable a ground-breaking search for ultra-light dark matter and pave the way for the exploration of gravitational waves in a previously inaccessible frequency range, opening a new window on the mergers of massive black holes and novel physics in the early universe.

Quantum-enhanced interferometry for new physics

The Quantum Interferometry (QI) collaboration, which received £4 million of funding, aims to search for dark matter and for quantum aspects of space-time with quantum technologies. The QI consortium includes investigators from Quantum City partners QuantIC and the UK Quantum Technology Hub in Sensors and Timing, along with international collaborators at institutions such as MIT and Caltech.

QI will build four table-top experiments (two of them in Birmingham) to search for dark matter in the galactic halo, improve 100-m scale ALPS light-shining-through-the-wall experiment at DESY with novel single photon detectors, search for quantisation of space-time, and test models of semiclassical gravity. These experiments will allow us to explore new parameter spaces of photon – dark matter interaction, and seek answers to the long-standing research question: How can gravity be united with the other fundamental forces? Visit QI Labs for more information.

Professor Kai Bongs, Principle Investigator at the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing, led by the University of Birmingham, says: “The UK Government’s investment in these projects enables us to draw together experts in quantum physics research to explore some of the key mysteries of our universe. These projects will allow us to build on the momentum already generated through the Quantum Technology Hubs and build a pipeline feeding novel technologies into the future multi-£bn Quantum Technology economy.”

Announcing the awards, Professor Mark Thomson, Executive Chair of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said: "STFC is proud to support these projects that utilise cutting-edge quantum technologies for novel and exciting research into fundamental physics.

“Major scientific discoveries often arise from the application of new technologies and techniques. With the application of emerging quantum technologies, I believe we have an opportunity to change the way we search for answers to some of the biggest mysteries of the universe. These include exploring what dark matter is made of, finding the absolute mass of neutrinos and establishing how quantum mechanics fits with Einstein’s theory of relativity.

“I believe strongly that this exciting new research programme will enable the UK to take the lead in a new way of exploring profound questions in fundamental physics.”

Further information on all projects funded can be found on the UKRI website.