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2020 quantum prototype will help engineers see underground

2020 quantum prototype will help engineers see underground

Leading UK environmental and engineering firm RSK is leading a project to develop a quantum-enabled gravity sensor that will help infrastructure planning and works. 

An estimated 2.5 million roadworks take place in England each year, costing the economy £4 billion in lost working hours and delayed deliveries. 

Environmental and engineering firm RSK Group is leading a project using quantum technology to help see underground, increasing productivity and reducing disruption for Britain’s 30.9 million road users and removing the risk of unknown ground hazards from construction and infrastructure projects of all sizes. 

Using funding from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) quantum pioneer fund, RSK will lead a consortium of businesses and universities to develop a prototype instrument that can identify buried and forgotten pipes and assess infrastructure, enabling geoscientists and engineers to identify risks and plan work more efficiently. 

The project is supported with funding from the ISCF’s quantum technologies challenge, delivered by UK Research and Innovation, and 4 projects to develop quantum-enabled prototype devices within 2 years.

How the device will work

For over 30 years, academics have been exploring the strange effects of quantum superposition – the principle that 2 or more quantum states can be added together to result in another valid quantum state – to measure gravity.

This is done by comparing wave-particle duality – the concept that quantum entities can be described both as particles and waves – in atoms of the element rubidium. By comparing wave-particle duality with a laser beam, the instrument will be able to detect very small changes in the way atoms fall freely in a vacuum, determining the local strength of gravity.

If the measurement is sensitive enough, it will be able to detect if there are voids, pipes, tunnels and oil and gas reserves in the ground beneath your feet.

UK National Quantum Technology Hub at Birmingham University

A more efficient instrument for a range of sectors

George Tuckwell, divisional director for RSK’s geoscience and engineering division, said that this project will result in an industry-first portable prototype. Tuckwell added:

There are gravity instruments based on quantum that are available commercially but they are static instruments that are very big and power-hungry.

We need something you can move around an engineering site and provide you with a map of gravity. There’s nothing that does that based on this technology. We want to be able to create an instrument capable of measuring gravity more accurately than existing commercial instruments used in the field.

Although the technology will be deployed first in the construction engineering field, it has potential applications across a number of sectors. Tuckwell continued: "Other sectors could include the oil and gas industry and mapping subsurface resources for mining and minerals, and it also has a defence use. There are many survey targets."

Team at UK National Quantum Technology Hub at Birmingham University

Michael Holynski, Isabelle Riou, Jamie Vovrosh and George Tuckwell

Bringing together the entire value chain

Through the project, RSK will bring together businesses from throughout the supply chain, including:

  • Teledyne E2V Ltd, a global technology and components manufacturer
  • Fraunhofer UK Research Limited, a specialist R&D organisation
  • UniKLasers, a specialist laser supplier

The University of Birmingham and the University of Southampton, as well as Altran, Geomatrix Earth Science, Magnetic Shields, Silicon Microgravity, Optocap and QinetiQ, are also part of the consortium.

Tuckwell said:

Teledyne E2V will lead on the systems engineering, ensuring it all comes together. They will be supported by the University of Birmingham’s physics department and civil engineering department, who will represent the end users. We’re also bringing together component partners: manufacturers of lasers, magnetic shielding and vacuum chambers.

It’s not just the supply chain, but the full value chain are actively involved in the project, beyond supply and into end users and client bodies. It also allows us to see their requirements, and for them to be built into the system from the beginning.

It’s not just the supply chain, but the full value chain are actively involved in the project, beyond supply and into end users and client bodies. It also allows us to see their requirements, and for them to be built into the system from the beginning.