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  • Lee Kai Xiang

Quantum Supply Chains

Written for The Ridge for NUS Student Union

Have you checked out the latest Apple iPhone? What about Nvidia’s top line of GPUs? Every year, tech companies announce the newest series of devices – more features, faster processors, and larger memory!

There are many avenues that are currently being pursued in the search for the Next Big Thing. One approach is to turn to the physics of the very small: quantum mechanics! Quantum-based devices are now being investigated for use in clocks, computers, and even in sensing and detection applications.

Keeping up with the quantum impetus, several national initiatives have been launched, committing $23.5 million over the next 3.5 years under Singapore’s Research, Innovation, and Enterprise 2020 plan. Several quantum-based start-ups have also recently taken flight over the last 10 years, capitalizing on the latest advancements in the nascent field.

However, money alone isn’t enough to drive forward this frontier research. Highly specialized tools and materials are a core necessity for many quantum scientists. And these items are extremely niche—sometimes requiring customized designs for each specific use case. The supply of these necessary research resources are then often isolated to few locations globally.

Quantum Fridges for Superpowered Cooling!

Consider the field of superconducting quantum computing, which had the first quantum supremacy breakthrough in 2019. The “qubits” or quantum bits, require the use of dilution refrigerators to house and cool down the quantum circuits needed for information processing. And these devices are sensitive – depending on the laboratory, one might need various other modifications to the fridge depending on the experiment at hand. Just in December of 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory commissioned the largest dilution refrigerator ever createdclose to 15 times as large as those found in other cutting-edge laboratories.

These esoteric machines aren’t widely available: approximately 10 companies worldwide have the capabilities to engineer and manufacture them – all of which are localized in North America and Europe. Further, the irreplaceable primary refrigerant fluid in these machines is helium-3. The world’s current supply of helium-3 comes as a by-product of operating nuclear power plants or from manufacturing processes in nuclear weapon programmes – it cannot be mined or purified from any natural sources. And countries that possess both nuclear capabilities and specialized refinery equipment are few and far between.

Ultra-Precise Lasers for Ultra-Precise Clocks!

Ever thought about how global positioning systems (GPS) nail down your location? Onboard satellites set adrift around Earth, tiny atomic clocks mark time down to the 10-15-th of a second. In practical terms, these clocks fall out of sync every second in 20 million years.

To march atoms to the beat of time, intersections of sharply-focussed lasers are required to trap atoms, confining them to a single spot. Other webs of lasers are then used to cool the atoms down, by deft control of pulses of a specific color. Finally, an intense beam is used to “tickle” the atoms into matching the march of time.

The intricate network of lasers and control systems requires a myriad of components, all polished to the laboratory standard of precision. Fortunately, the supply of these parts are not subject to the same degree of niche-ness as the dilution refrigerator. Nonetheless, the main suppliers for these components are largely confined to the western industrialized regions. Thorlabs, the primary go-to for optical parts, has only 3 manufacturers out of its 21 not within North American and western Europe.

Besides in atom clock laboratories, fine control of atoms are needed in laboratories looking into atom-based quantum computing. Atoms are also being investigated here in Singapore for gravitational sensors, as well as extremely accurate gyroscopes in military navigation systems. All these atom applications require lasers for various control and measurement schemes.

Direct applications of the lasers and related components themselves can be found in quantum encryption networks. For a faster, more secure internet, Singapore has established several fronts looking into these networks. A local start-up, Spectral, focusses on space-based communications, while the National Quantum Safe Network (NQSN) is looking to establish a ribbing of secure channels across our country.

Geopolitical Supply Chain

So what happens if part of the supply chain gets cut-off? It has already happened, and is an ongoing problem. Russia is one of the global leading suppliers of helium – 20 to 30% of helium supply comes from the eurasian giant. And with recent tensions and conflict in the russio-adjacent region, subsequent shortages have caused helium prices to spike.

Another consequence of these conflicts are the associated shipping delays. Especially for parts requiring complex manufacturing techniques, which may have components sequestered from various suppliers worldwide, any delays in procurement will compound into delays of the final product.

And what does this mean for our little island-nation? The use of exotic materials and technologies in research is an illuminating example of how our nation is deeply-tied into the politics of other far-away nations. We cannot idly watch as bystanders on the geopolitical stage, and must take steps towards nudging the rest of the world towards our best-interests.

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