£2m award for quantum technologies to solve the mysteries of the Universe

Our understanding of the Universe could be transformed thanks to major UK investment in quantum technologies including £2m for Lancaster University.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is supporting two collaborative projects involving Lancaster to investigate key questions such as the nature of dark matter and how the early Universe evolved.

The £2m award is part of the National Quantum Technologies Programme which aims to make the UK a global leader in the development and commercialisation of quantum technologies.

The two projects – Quantum Sensors for the Hidden Sector (QSHS) and Quantum Enhanced Superfluid Technologies for Dark Matter and Cosmology (QUEST-DMC) – could help solve some of the greatest mysteries in fundamental physics.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: ”As we build back better from the pandemic, it’s critical that we throw our weight behind new transformative technologies, such as quantum, that could help to unearth new scientific discoveries and cement the UK’s status as a science superpower.

“Today’s funding will enable some of the UK’s most ambitious quantum researchers to develop state of art technologies that could help us solve important unanswered questions about our universe, from proving Einstein’s theory of relativity to understanding the mysterious behaviour of black holes.”

Quantum Sensors for the Hidden Sector (QSHS)

QSHS is led by Sheffield with Lancaster, Cambridge, Liverpool and Oxford, the National Physical Laboratory, Royal Holloway University of London and UCL.

The project aims to contribute to the search for axions, low-mass ‘hidden’ particles, which may help solve the mystery of dark matter. The team will develop ultra-low-noise quantum electronics to underpin the search for these hitherto undetected particles. Dark matter is a component of the universe whose gravitational attraction can be observed, but which is not visible in our telescopes. Despite the fact that it constitutes approximately 80% of the mass of our galaxy, it has never been detected directly. One application of the new quantum measurement technology will be to extend the mass search range of the US ADMX experiment, thereby contributing to the international effort to detect the dark matter component of our own galactic halo.

Leading Lancaster’s QSHS research is Professor Yuri Pashkin with Edward Laird and Ian Bailey.

Professor Pashkin said: “We are excited to use profound Lancaster expertise in quantum technologies and dark matter to tackle one of the oldest problems in fundamental physics. Quantum technologies, already successfully applied in other fields, will boost the search for axions and may lead to great discoveries.”

Dr Laird added: “Amplifiers that use quantum technology can detect exquisitely small levels of power. We will be able to search with unprecedented precision for the tiny signal that would prove the existence of axions.”

Dr Bailey said: “The discovery of hidden-sector particles as a component of the dark matter that we think surrounds us, would change our understanding of the cosmos fundamentally. In addition, the effect of these new, very light particles would impact on many other measurements being carried out in physics labs today, causing us to update the standard model of particle physics, and possibly giving us solutions to some of its shortcomings.”

Quantum Enhanced Superfluid Technologies for Dark Matter and Cosmology (QUEST-DMC)

QUEST-DMC is led by Royal Holloway, University of London, with Lancaster, Oxford and Sussex Universities.

The project aims to address two fundamental questions in cosmology – what is the nature of dark matter and how did the early universe evolve. By bringing together the frontiers of cosmology, ultralow temperatures and quantum technology, the ultra-sensitive quantum sensors the team will develop will be used to search for dark matter candidates in a new mass range and to investigate phase transitions that simulate the early universe events that are predicted to produce gravitational wave signals.

Leading Lancaster’s QUEST-DMC research is Professor Richard Haley with Samuli Autti, Sergey Kafanov, Jon Prance, Michael Thompson, Viktor Tsepelin and Dmitry Zmeev.

Professor Haley said: “This is a bold interdisciplinary and collaborative project which combines Lancaster strengths in low temperature superfluid physics and cooled quantum devices. Our task is to develop quantum sensors, simulators and components that will be used to probe fundamental questions in cosmology, searching for dark matter and better understanding gravitational waves.”

Dr Tsepelin added: “For example, by combining superfluid helium-3 as a detector material with nanofabricated sensors and quantum amplifiers we will be able to augment the hunt for dark matter, searching in a new region and with exceptional sensitivity. These same tools and techniques will be needed to deliver a range of new practical quantum technologies.”

Both projects are supported through the Quantum Technologies for Fundamental Physics programme, delivered by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as part of UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund.

Professor Mark Thomson, Executive Chair of the STFC, said: “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. 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.”

Professor Dame Lynn Gladden, Executive Chair of the EPSRC and UKRI sponsor for Quantum Technologies, said: “This is a hugely exciting programme and we look forward to delivering these projects and funding further work in this area as well as exploring opportunities for exploiting quantum technologies with other UKRI partners.”

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