Quantum physics might not get the publicity it deserves, but quanta and their properties have been shaping our everyday lives for quite some time. As early as the 1950s, the ›first quantum revolution‹ laid the physical foundations for the development of computer chips and lasers. Now the ›second quantum revolution‹ is already upon us: Our scientists are on the verge of a breakthrough with new applications that will be some of the most important technologies of the 21st century. Prof. Dr Andreas Tünnermann tells us what the future has in store – and how Jena has a part to play.
Interview by Till Bayer
Mr Tünnermann, you’re leading a project at the ›NOA‹ collaborative research centre to investigate the nonlinear properties of nanomaterials. What is it about and what does quantum technology have to do with it?
On the one hand, we’re researching basic phenomena in quantum physics; on the other hand, we’re already applying some of our research results. Ever since quantum physics was founded almost 100 years ago, it’s produced many technologies such as computer chips, microelectronic components and lasers as novel sources of light. The scientists at our collaborative research centre are drawing on our knowledge of these three areas.
My team’s project is about studying light-matter interactions in systems that only consist of a few atomic layers. We’re particularly interested in quantum phenomena like tunnelling, where light enables a particle to penetrate a potential energy barrier that actually prevents the transfer of electric charge. This can only be achieved by using quantum mechanical phenomena on an atomic scale.
What other projects are taking place in Jena to advance research into quantum technologies?
In the modern age, quantum researchers have succeeded in controlling even individual quantum particles with high precision. We’re building on these achievements by carrying out a series of projects at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering (IOF) and at the University of Jena’s Institute of Applied Physics. A prominent example is QuNET, a major cooperative initiative funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), where we are researching the use of quantum phenomena to develop highly secure communication technologies, including the encryption and transmission of information.
Our second major field of research is imaging, where we’re investigating analytical methods based on the quantum effects of photon entanglement. Such methods enable us to analyse samples that react sensitively to certain types of radiation and cannot be achieved with conventional systems. These methods can be particularly useful in medicine, where they can be used to reduce radiation exposure during tissue imaging.
What do you find so fascinating about the quantum world?
I find it particularly interesting that the precise control of quantum systems is opening up new applications in the fields of sensor technology, communication and computing. I’m driven by the challenge of developing these technologies to the extent where we can generate added value for the economy.
I was lucky enough to put the results of the first quantum revolution into practice, and I even had the opportunity to participate in the development of laser technology in the 1980s and 90s, when we managed to establish a community in Germany and turn companies into global market leaders. Nowadays, almost 50% of all high-power lasers for industrial production and medical technology come from Germany.
I hope we can pool the knowledge of universities and non-university research institutions – and focus the innovation potential of companies – to shape the second quantum revolution in a similar way and create added value for society and the economy.
Quantum computers make people sit up and take notice, because they can be better than conventional computers in terms of their processing power. What is the state of development in this field?
There’s a lot of hype about quantum computers and we have to curb our expectations. In theory, they’re superior to conventional computers for certain computational tasks because of their different scaling behaviour. As the prime factorization of very large numbers is easier with quantum computers, for example, encryption systems can be broken. What’s more, quantum computers will pave the way for completely new developments, such as in the field of materials research.
In practical terms, however, there’s still a great deal to be done before we can develop a universal quantum computer. I imagine we’ll first see a conventional computer with a quantum accelerator slot that enables special computing operations – but we should assume that many years of development are ahead. However, this is certainly the technology with the greatest long-term potential.
How long will it take for us to notice quantum technologies in our everyday lives?
We’ll all come into contact with new quantum technologies – directly and indirectly – in just a few years. The most obvious change will emerge in the field of data encryption, which concerns our basic social rights, and modern systems are already using ›quantum number generators‹. However, we shouldn’t forget that various quantum mechanical phenomena can already be found in our society. A classic example is the CD, which requires a laser to be played.
With the current economic package alone, the German government is investing two billion euros in the development of quantum technologies. Is Germany in a good position to promote quantum research?
Our basic research infrastructure is excellent – Germany certainly holds its own against other countries around the world. This is mainly due to the long-term funding campaigns we’ve seen over the past few decades, such as those run by the German Research Foundation and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
The objective of all current funding programmes is to transfer knowledge into the development of new applications, particularly by promoting qualified young talents. The federal government is pursuing this target by launching special programmes designed to network science and business, improve education and promote specific areas such as quantum engineering.
If we want to remain competitive on the international stage, it’s important that we implement all of these measures as quickly as possible. But I’m optimistic, because Germany’s key advantage lies in its innovative SMEs that can quickly bring new applications to market.
But is there anything that can be done to improve our infrastructure?
Science isn’t just about competition; it’s also about cooperation. At the moment, however, there is a noticeable reduction in cooperative projects around the world. This is having an impact not only on quantum research, but also on other fields of research. This is a worrying development. We have to enable and facilitate cross-border cooperation. In the long term, nationalist endeavours will only end up slowing down scientific progress and the development of society as a whole.
Like many of my colleagues around the world, I’m trying to counteract this by developing networks. In Jena, my research teams are made up of young people from Europe, Asia, Africa and America. We’re also working closely with other research groups within Europe. We’ve opened a graduate school with Canada and applied for another with Australia.
Many people are helping to develop quantum technologies in Jena, not least you and your teams at the university and the Fraunhofer Institute. How do you see the future development of Thuringia and the region in terms of quantum research?
Thuringia has a large number of competitive groups and Jena has already become a hotspot for photonics and quantum technologies. We’re planning a new physics professorship at the University of Jena with a focus on research and teaching in applied quantum physics.
We’re in a good position, but I still think we need to establish an even tighter network. I would be delighted to see the Free State of Thuringia support activities at multiple locations to really put the region’s quantum research on the map. It will be important to synergize our skills and capacities in Thuringia and also to involve local businesses.
Prof. Dr Andreas Tünnermann has been teaching applied physics at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena and directing the Institute of Applied Physics since 1998. He conducts research in the fields of photonics and quantum technologies. He also heads the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF in Jena. Andreas Tünnermann has been a member of the board at the Helmholtz Institute Jena and the Abbe Centre of Photonics since 2009.