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How quantum technology is changing the world

Health, tech, space: quantum technology is already benefiting many sectors

Pierre Henriquet, Doctor in Nuclear Physics and Columnist at Polytechnique Insights
On September 26th, 2023 |
4 min reading time
Pierre Henriquet
Pierre Henriquet
Doctor in Nuclear Physics and Columnist at Polytechnique Insights
Key takeaways
  • We already use quantum physics in our everyday lives, but the second quantum revolution could make it possible to apply it to industry.
  • Spintronics manipulates the spin of electrons rather than their electrical charge to dramatically reduce the power consumption of components.
  • Quantum technology gives sensors the ability to measure minute signals with excellent resolution, opening up new fields of application.
  • The fields of application for these sensors are extensive, ranging from the geosciences to life sciences and inertial navigation.
  • The medical field has also made the quantum leap: the way in which the molecules in drugs interact with those in living organisms is being studied through “quantum chemistry”.

Quan­tum physics has now large­ly become part of our every­day lives. The “first quan­tum rev­o­lu­tion” led to a host of devices and tech­niques that we use almost every day. Lasers, elec­tron­ics, LED light­ing, pho­to­volta­ic pan­els, nuclear med­i­cine – none of these every­day tech­nolo­gies could be used with­out a detailed knowl­edge of the process­es that take place on an atom­ic lev­el, thanks to an under­stand­ing of the behav­iour of ele­men­tary par­ti­cles and the inter­ac­tions between mat­ter and light.

But quan­tum mechan­ics has not fin­ished chang­ing our world. The very lat­est dis­cov­er­ies from research lab­o­ra­to­ries fore­shad­ow a sec­ond quan­tum rev­o­lu­tion, in which mas­tery of the process­es at work in the infin­i­tes­i­mal may once again pro­found­ly change the way we live, com­mu­ni­cate, and under­stand the world. Let’s take a look at the next appli­ca­tions of quan­tum physics in the indus­tri­al world.

Spintronics: the electronics of the future

The ever-fin­er con­trol of elec­tron flows in ever-small­er devices has enabled elec­tron­ics to reach unprece­dent­ed lev­els of minia­tur­i­sa­tion. In 2021, IBM announced the devel­op­ment of a chip made of 2 nanome­tre tran­sis­tors, with a den­si­ty of 333 mil­lion tran­sis­tors per mm².

But in addi­tion to its elec­tri­cal charge, the elec­tron has anoth­er prop­er­ty called “spin”. This quan­tum quan­ti­ty has no clas­si­cal equiv­a­lent but can be com­pared to a “mag­net­ic moment”, as if the elec­tron were a tiny mag­net rotat­ing on itself. The prin­ci­ple of spin­tron­ics is there­fore to manip­u­late the spin of elec­trons rather than their elec­tri­cal charge in order to cre­ate new appli­ca­tions, but also to dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduce the pow­er con­sump­tion of components.

Spin­tron­ics is already being used in a num­ber of elec­tron­ic com­po­nents, includ­ing com­put­er mem­o­ry (for which its dis­cov­er­ers won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2007) and cer­tain mag­net­ic sen­sors for cars and robotics.

Spin­tron­ics is already used in a num­ber of elec­tron­ic com­po­nents, such as com­put­er memories.

But, as men­tioned above, the minia­tur­i­sa­tion of elec­tron­ic devices is so advanced that their basic ele­ments will soon be the size of just a few atoms. A size that will make their behav­iour almost exclu­sive­ly quan­tum. To read and write on such small mem­o­ries, a team from the Insti­tut Ray­on­nement-Matière de Saclay (IRaMiS) has stud­ied the behav­iour of a mol­e­cule (called FeTTP) that nor­mal­ly plays a role in the trans­port of oxy­gen by haemo­glo­bin1.

This mol­e­cule deposit­ed on graphene (a lay­er of car­bon atoms one atom thick) can change spin eas­i­ly and at will. This con­sti­tutes a new read/write mech­a­nism for a sin­gle mol­e­c­u­lar spin, which is even small­er and more ener­gy-effi­cient than exist­ing devices.

Mean­while, the Nanosciences and Nan­otech­nolo­gies Cen­tre at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Paris-Saclay is try­ing to make arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence sys­tems more flex­i­ble2. In con­ven­tion­al com­put­er sys­tems, the basic infor­ma­tion is cod­ed in the form of 0 or 1. New spin­tron­ic sys­tems make it pos­si­ble to intro­duce nuances into the bina­ry code, such as 0+ or 1- states, and to inte­grate this ‘fuzzy’ log­ic into arti­fi­cial neur­al net­works, which would oper­ate more like the organ­ic bio­log­i­cal neu­rons in our brains.

Quantum sensors: measuring the immeasurable

A large num­ber of sen­sors are built around dif­fer­ent quan­tum phe­nom­e­na that give them the abil­i­ty to mea­sure minute sig­nals with excel­lent res­o­lu­tion, open­ing up new fields of application.

In a micro­scope, the res­o­lu­tion lim­it is deter­mined by the prop­er­ties of the light used. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, it is not pos­si­ble to ‘see’ an object small­er than one wave­length of this light. In the vis­i­ble range, this wave­length is around 500 nanometres.

In quan­tum physics, there is a prin­ci­ple called “wave-par­ti­cle dual­i­ty”, accord­ing to which quan­tum objects (par­ti­cles, atoms, etc.) exhib­it the behav­iour of both par­ti­cles and waves. We can there­fore asso­ciate them with a wave­length, like light, and imag­ine a “mat­ter wave micro­scope”. The advan­tage is that the wave­length asso­ci­at­ed with atoms is 1 mil­lion times short­er than that of light. We there­fore have a mea­sure­ment capa­bil­i­ty that is 1 mil­lion times bet­ter than that avail­able with light.

With quan­tum physics, we have a mea­sure­ment capa­bil­i­ty that is 1 mil­lion times bet­ter than that avail­able with light.

Such devices do exist. They are known, for exam­ple, as « iner­tial sen­sors using atom­ic inter­fer­om­e­try ». The fields of appli­ca­tion are very broad, rang­ing from geo­sciences (detec­tion of oil slicks by mea­sur­ing vari­a­tions in the local grav­i­ty field) to life sci­ences (mea­sure­ment of the elec­tric or mag­net­ic field emit­ted by a sin­gle cell) to iner­tial nav­i­ga­tion (on Earth or in space).

In 2022, an arti­cle in Nature out­lined the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a grav­i­ty sen­sor of this type using the quan­tum behav­iour of free-falling atoms to mea­sure micro­scop­ic vari­a­tions in the Earth­’s grav­i­ty more accu­rate­ly than ever before, in order to probe the struc­tures beneath the Earth­’s surface.

Sim­u­la­tion de car­togra­phie grav­imétrique util­isée avec une réso­lu­tion spa­tiale de 0,5 m sur une région du sol3

Quantum mechanics in the health sector

The phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal indus­try has also long since embraced quan­tum mechanics.

Med­i­cines are mol­e­cules that bind to oth­er liv­ing struc­tures to pro­vide health ben­e­fits for the patient. The way in which these mol­e­cules inter­act with each oth­er is stud­ied by a spe­cif­ic sci­en­tif­ic field called “quan­tum chemistry”.

Before a ther­a­peu­tic mol­e­cule is autho­rised for the mar­ket, it must under­go a series of tests and clin­i­cal tri­als that rarely take less than a decade. In order to tar­get mol­e­cules of inter­est very quick­ly, there is a stage called « vir­tu­al high-through­put screen­ing », where extreme­ly com­plex algo­rithms test in par­al­lel the abil­i­ty of thou­sands of mol­e­cules to demon­strate the desired bio­chem­i­cal effect on the target.

This under­stand­ing of how an indi­vid­ual mol­e­cule chem­i­cal­ly binds to oth­er nano­met­ric struc­tures requires the devel­op­ment of dig­i­tal sim­u­la­tion tools incor­po­rat­ing all the prin­ci­ples of quan­tum mechan­ics and chem­istry, with the aim of deliv­er­ing their results as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, despite the colos­sal com­plex­i­ty of the cal­cu­la­tions involved.

In France, a start-up called Qbit phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals is devel­op­ing new cal­cu­la­tion meth­ods com­bin­ing neur­al net­works, super­com­put­ers and quan­tum com­put­ers to tar­get the med­i­cines of tomor­row ever more quick­ly and effec­tive­ly4.


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