Quantum sensors utilize strange quantum effects like entanglement, superposition, and squeezing to achieve unprecedented sensitivity in measurements of various quantities including time, motion, magnetism, gravity, radiation, and more. After decades of lab research, quantum sensors are now transitioning into commercialization and real world deployment. As research continues rapidly advancing, quantum sensors promise major improvements across diverse application areas. This article offers an in-depth look at some of the key emerging application domains along with specific use cases and commercialization outlook.
Quantum Inertial Sensors – Navigation and Mapping
Quantum inertial sensors, including accelerometers and gyroscopes, exploit quantum superposition to deliver ultraprecise measurements of acceleration and rotation for navigation applications.
Chip-Scale Navigation Grade Sensors
Conventional mechanical gyroscopes suffer from drift while optical gyroscopes can be bulky and expensive. Chip-scale quantum inertial sensors offer a compact, stable and cost effective solution.
ColdQuanta is commercializing quantum inertial sensors based on its cold atom technology. Its Quantum Core sensor measures both acceleration and rotation via interference of laser cooled Rb atoms. ColdQuanta expects to deliver navigation-grade performance by 2025 at lower size, weight and power consumption than competing sensors. Other approaches using trapped ions or atom interferometry on a chip also aim to deliver compact navigation-grade inertial sensors commercially by 2025-2026.
- Precision navigation for aircraft, satellites, missiles, and underwater vehicles without relying on GPS or external references.
- Accurate platform stabilization and pointing for space applications.
- Precise tracking of people/object movements indoors where GPS lacks precision.
As costs eventually reduce, consumer applications could include personal fitness tracking, pedestrian/cycle navigation, augmented reality gear, and autonomous vehicle guidance.
Gravity Gradiometry for Natural Resource Exploration
Quantum accelerometers also show promise for airborne gravity gradiometry to precisely map spatial variations in the gravitational field near hydrocarbon and mineral deposits or underground structures. University of Birmingham spinout Gravitilab is developing quantum accelerometers using cold atom interferometry for hi-resolution 3D subsurface gravitational mapping. Commercial surveys could begin by 2026. Competitors like Muquans are also targeting this application.
Advantages over Classical Techniques
- 10-100X better resolution reveals smaller deposits.
- Simultaneously maps multiple subsurface features unlike point measurements.
- Environmentally cleaner compared to seismic surveys.
This emerging quantum technique can significantly boost discovery rates in exploration surveys. It also has security applications in detecting underground tunnels, voids, and structural weaknesses.
Quantum Magnetometry for Medical Applications
Quantum magnetometers like SQUIDs and NV center sensors permit detecting faint magnetic signals from organs and biomarkers for medical imaging and diagnostics.
Magnetoencephalography for Brain Imaging
QuSpin’s commercial SQUID sensors map brain activity via ultrasensitive megnetoencephalography (MEG) scanning. MEG provides higher spatial and temporal resolution than EEG/MRI to study neural oscillations and pathways.
- Presurgical functional mapping of eloquent cortex before tumor/epilepsy surgery
- Researching brain cognition, pathology, development and responses to drugs
- Localizing epileptic seizure onset zones for surgical treatment
- Diagnosing concussion and CTE brain injuries via abnormal MEG signals
MEG scanning is slowly gaining adoption at specialty clinics and research hospitals. QuSpin is also developing a next-gen quantum gravimeter helmet for routine scans.
Early Cancer Detection
Magnetic biosensors aim to screen cancers at earliest stages by detecting tumor derived molecules, DNA, exosomes and biomarkers using magnetic nanoparticles. MagArray’s commercial quantum biosensor performs rapid magnetic readout of cancer biomarker levels from blood samples with attomolar sensitivity, 100 million times better than ELISA assays.
- Detects multiple cancer signals simultaneously unlike genetic testing
- Earlier detection when cure rates are higher
- Low costs suitable for large-scale screening
- Quantum approach avoids lead time & labeling unlike other biosensors
By 2028, such ultrasensitive quantum biosensors could enable routine cancer screening via annual blood tests, a breakthrough toward diagnosing cancers sooner and boosting survival rates.
Medical Imaging Alternatives
Besides MEG, quantum magnetic sensors offer new imaging possibilities:
- Ultrasensitive magnetometers can map nerve signals in cardiac and brain tissues to study arrhythmias and seizures.
- Magnetic particle imaging (MPI) uses magnetic tracers instead of radioactive agents for better contrast, safety and resolution.
- Atomic magnetometers can quantify tissue magnetization induced by applied RF signals for low-power imaging.
- Quantum radar and LiDAR under development for accurate, harmless 3D scanning.
These emerging quantum techniques may find niche medical uses or even complement conventional scanning once commercially viable platforms are available.
Industrial & Environmental Quantum Sensing
Quantum sensors bring unique capabilities for industrial process monitoring, equipment health checks and environmental tracking.
Non-Destructive Testing (NDT)
Quantum gradient magnetometers like those from Qnami and QuSpin permit scanning material defects, cracks and anomalies below surfaces by detecting minute magnetic signatures without radiation exposure.
- Detecting fatigue cracks, voids, and corrosion in aircraft, engines, turbines, pipelines and oil rigs
- Inspecting aging powerplant equipment and infrastructure without taking it offline
- Evaluating quality of automotive composites and spot welds
- Analyzing historical masonry and artefacts in archaeological studies
This quantum NDT approach provides a versatile inspection tool for critical infrastructure at lower operating costs than conventional techniques.
Industrial Process Monitoring
Quantum pressure, temperature, and electromagnetic field sensors utilizing atomic transitions or spin readouts can continuously measure parameters inside chemical reactors, additive manufacturing machines, and other high value industrial equipment with high sensitivity without needing to insert probes in hazardous zones. Qnami’s commercial quantum pressure sensor for instance promises 0.5 mbar precision from outside pressurized vessels. Chip-scale quantum EMF sensors being developed by ColdQuanta, AOSense and Honeywell can wirelessly monitor EM fields in electric motors and high power systems predictive of failures. Such precise real time quantum monitoring solutions help optimize throughput, quality and safety. They also facilitate predictive maintenance before expensive downtimes occur.
Oil Exploration & Environmental Tracking
Quantum gravimeters, magnetometers and gradient sensors deployed on the surface, sea floor or in monitoring wells can provide continuous 3D subsurface imaging to track fluid injections, migrations and leakages during drilling, fracking, carbon sequestration, or waste storage, helping minimize geological risks and environmental impacts.
Quantum LiDAR solutions promise rapid aerial scanning over pipelines, wells and landfills to quickly detect methane leaks, ground shifts and contaminant dispersal with better precision than classical approaches. US startup SeekOps is targeting this market.
Defense agencies are also exploring quantum sensors for tracking personnel movements, chemical weapons, nuclear tests and missiles via minute gravitational, magnetic, radiological and motion signatures at long ranges.
While technical challenges remain, quantum sensing is transitioning from fundamental R&D toward commercial adoption for specialized applications over 2024-2030, followed by potential large-scale deployments.
Industry investment is accelerating with defense, aerospace, oil/gas, mining and medical sectors expected to spearhead adoption given high costs and risks. For broader adoption, better standards, regulation, economies of scale, and ecosystem maturity is needed. Cost-per-sensor needs to fall 50-75% by 2030.
Prominent ecosystem players include Muquans, AOSense, Qnami and Honeywell (atomic sensors), QuSpin, Lockheed Martin, Geometrics and Hyperfine Research (SQUIDs/NV centers), ColdQuanta, Honeywell Quantum, MenloMicro (chip-scale), SeekOps (LiDAR), Gravitilab and Gravitec (quantum accelerometers) among others.
While naysayers question if quantum computers can live up to their hype, quantum sensing could quietly become a multi-billion dollar industry given clearer near-term utility. With exciting innovations underway, quantum sensors are gearing up to open new horizons in measurement science.
Advances in quantum sensing are unlocking novel techniques for navigation, medical scanning, NDT, industrial monitoring and other applications with beyond state-of-the-art sensitivity and precision. As research continues making rapid strides, quantum sensors are beginning the long transition from lab curiosity toward real-world problem solving. With more investment and field testing underway, commercial adoption is expected to accelerate after 2025 once user-friendly and robust sensor platforms emerge.
But with the space still in flux, realizing the full long term disruptive potential would need stronger institutional support, ecosystem infrastructure and talent development across the quantum value chain. While technical challenges persist, quantum sensing holds immense promise to power next-gen navigation networks, enhance healthcare outcomes, boost industrial productivity and efficiency, secure critical infrastructure, track environmental changes, explore resources sustainably, and open up new discoveries, delivering social and economic impact. The quantum future looks exciting!
What are the key benefits of quantum sensors over conventional sensors?
Quantum sensors leverage strange quantum effects for orders of magnitude better sensitivity, accuracy and stability in measuring various quantities even under harsh conditions. Key advantages include:
- Ultraprecise inertial guidance without GPS (accuracy of <1 degree per hour)
- Imaging minute biomagnetic signals for medical diagnostics
- Scanning cracks and voids in materials/structures non-destructively
- Tracking tiny environmental changes like ground shifts or gas leaks
- Immunity to electromagnetic interference enabling deployment in industrial sites
- Chip-scale navigational platforms unlike bulky mechanical gyroscopes
What are the main challenges to wider adoption of quantum sensors?
Major challenges inhibiting widespread commercial adoption include:
- High costs: current sensors are priced from $50,000 to millions restricting use to high value applications
- Accessibility: Sensors remain complex lab equipment with limited real-world testing
- User experience: Stability and interference management needs refinement for industrial use
- Ecosystem gaps: Supporting infrastructure for supply, service, maintenance remains underdeveloped
- Standards and regulation: Frameworks for validating performance claims and reliability are still emerging
When could quantum sensors suitable for mainstream consumer use potentially emerge?
While niche industrial and medical applications are gaining traction, developing sensors with costs and form factors amenable for everyday consumer applications will take longer. Simple use cases like navigation aides for mobility gear, fitness wearables or phones could perhaps emerge by 2035 once chip-scale quantum inertial sensors meet cost and usability thresholds for integration into mass market devices.
Which application domains show the most immediate promise and value for quantum sensing?
Most promising near term application areas include:
- Precision navigation, tracking and geolocation
- Medical imaging, diagnostics and DNA sequencing
- Non-destructive structural testing and monitoring
- Industrial process control and predictive maintenance
- Natural resource exploration – mineral deposits, underground structures
- Environmental monitoring – oil spills, gas leaks, contaminant dispersal
What emerging quantum sensing modalities show the greatest potential?
Most promising quantum sensing approaches include:
- Chip-scale cold atom interferometers
- NV center magnetometers
- Squids: Directly sensing and scanning
- Trapped ions: Inertial and electric sensing
- Rydberg atoms for EM field sensing
- Quantum LiDAR: Faster scanning with better SNR
Ongoing advances across these interdisciplinary areas of quantum sensing research hold exciting potential for disruptive innovations once technical challenges are overcome.
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