India is getting serious about building her own technology base and the upcoming National Quantum Mission could be a game changer in multiple sectors, from defence, energy, and environment to healthcare and civil applications. Any technology is first devised and then thrives on material innovation, and quantum technology is no exception.
For India, investments in quantum materials and devices promise far more dividends than meets the eye. The process can generate a cadre of highly skilled workforce. As India gears to become the world’s third-largest economy by 2027, a strongly networked material infrastructure in the country will be crucial. It will cater to not just quantum technologies but also other major scientific megaprojects ranging from the semiconductor mission to neutrino observatory and gravitational wave detection. The infrastructure will play a key role in building self-reliance in energy and electronics industries.
Quantum materials are a class of matter or systems that allow us to exploit some of the unique properties of quantum physics and accomplish tasks that classical technology is incapable of. The concept of “quantum materials” was originally introduced to identify some of the exotic quantum systems, including unconventional superconductors, heavy-fermion systems, and multifunctional oxides. It has now morphed into a powerful unifying concept across diverse fields of science and engineering, including solid state physics, cold atoms (atoms cooled to close to absolute zero whereby their quantum mechanical properties are unveiled), materials science and quantum computing.
R&D in quantum materials today embraces traditional semiconductors, superconductors, and non-linear optical crystals directly relevant to computing, communication, and sensing. It also encompasses materials built on complex interaction between charge and atoms, those that are products of the uniqueness in the geometric phase of the quantum wave functions, as well as materials that are a creation of the more “hidden” properties of quantum physics, such as quantum entanglement.
Research on new architectures to incorporate quantum materials into functional units has progressed simultaneously, leading to the concept of “quantum devices”. New paradigms of ultrafast transistors and opto-electronics components as well as non-volatile memory and sensing devices are becoming enabling vehicles for quantum applications.
A strong emphasis on quantum materials and devices is an integral component of any quantum technology mission. Upstream in the innovation pipeline, materials’ experts play important roles in developing new or upgrading current methods for precision synthesis, scalable yield, and stable performance. Research will be required to develop low-loss materials for superconducting quantum electronics that preserve quantum information over a long period, novel semiconductor nanostructures for the high-brightness source of entangled photons and much more. The impact of much of the research cuts across multiple verticals of quantum technologies, and this necessitates dedicated and centralised material/device infrastructures. This will allow streamlining the material and device requirements for the core quantum technology verticals of the mission — building infrastructure for new materials and devices with in-house R&D, synergising the diverse and geographically distributed material workforce in India to achieve mission deliverables, and ensuring efficient resource utilisation as well as minimising redundancy and duplication. The quantum materials and devices component of the National Quantum Mission will bring innovation in the field under a common umbrella. It will have a project-driven multi-disciplinary approach and develop strategies as well as an in-house R&D programme to propel quantum technology in India beyond the state-of-the-art through fundamental discoveries, imaginative engineering and entrepreneurial initiatives.
Achieving these tasks will require leveraging the evolving scientific infrastructure in the country and aligning with some of the key national mandates. Capacity building in the past two decades under national initiatives, such as the Nano Mission, has enabled a five-fold increase in research publications in this area between 2011 and 2019. Several institutions are endowed with expertise and facilities, including excellent infrastructure for semiconductors. There is a strong community of material modelling and computing expertise, supported by the National Supercomputing Mission and other local computing facilities.
It is not difficult to imagine that material innovation in the quantum domain will invigorate the manufacturing-based entrepreneurial ecosystem. Such activities could benefit from the government’s support through the Startup India initiative and other schemes. That said, serious challenges need to be overcome. Currently nearly 12 per cent start ups are deep tech-related — this represents a nearly 35 times increase between 2016 and 2019. However less than 3 per cent of these involve manufacturing and/or materials. We believe materials and devices-based innovation will create new businesses from manufacturing supporting equipment — which India currently imports — to high-end specialised devices, such as semiconductor-based single-photon detectors, at the bulk scale.
However, we do not have enough infrastructure that can support the entire chain of operation from working out the proof-of-principle to developing working prototypes. The sub-critical size of the country’s R&D community is a matter of equal concern. In 2018, India had 253 full-time equivalent researchers per million of its population, about 11 per cent of the researcher density of Italy. Moreover, this workforce is distributed across the country, and strategies will be required to integrate the initiatives of the demographically scattered human resources.
The National Quantum mission will require a significant component of materials research to be carried out in goal-oriented multi-institutional consortia. This will demand strategic recruitment of new talent, synergistic multi-institutional collaboration and political will to ease bureaucratic norms and prevent delays in infrastructure building — to ensure that the mission’s deadlines are met.
The material/device challenge in quantum technologies is unique because it often demands manipulation of the quantum state of an electron or atom with as much control as those in bulk three-dimensional systems that contain billions of atoms. This is an evolving field in which big advancements often come through serendipity. India needs to create a well-balanced R&D ecosystem where material research for near-term goals and applications needs to coexist and collaborate with those with more fundamental and futuristic objectives. This will help serendipitous outcomes to be immediately recognised, systematically characterised, engineered, and put to use. Material domains in all aspects of quantum technology — computing, communications, and sensing — are still developing. Hence there is a chance that through timely investment and efficient management, India will emerge a global leader in the field. The Indian Express