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A multi-institutional project involving a team from Oxford’s Department of Physics is one of 17 new projects to share in £6 million of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) quantum technology funding, announced this week.

Equipment used to produce laser-cooled strontium atoms to be used in the Atom Interferometry Observatory Network (AION) project
Sourcing of laser-cooled strontium atoms to be used in the Atom Interferometry Observatory Network (AION) project. Inset (top right) is an image of atoms passing through a laser beam and emitting blue light. The special features of strontium atoms allow large-scale atom interferometers to be constructed. In the first stage AION will design a 10m tall instrument and collaborate with the MAGIS-100 project this is constructing a 100m tall device at Fermilab in the US. Scaling up to even larger interferometers in the future will provide new instruments for the detection of dark matter and gravity waves in the mid frequency band.

This project will support research into differential atom interferometry and velocity selection using the clock transition of strontium atoms, as part of an ongoing endeavour to build AION, the Atom Interferometer Observatory and Network.

The first stage of the AION programme in the UK is to build a large-scale interferometer in the Beecroft Building at the University of Oxford.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers are involved, spanning particle physics, ultra-cold atoms, astronomy, and engineers. The element of the programme awarded fresh funding this week is led by principal investigator Professor Oliver Buchmüller (who is based at Imperial College London and is a Visiting Professor of Physics at Oxford) and involves Oxford physicists Professors Chris Foot, Ian Shipsey, Daniela Bortoletto and John March-Russell, and researchers at the University of Birmingham, the University of Cambridge and STFC Laboratories (RAL).

Professor Foot, in Oxford’s Ultra-Cold Quantum Matter research group, said: "We are excited to develop a new type of interferometer based on matter waves, which uses pulses of laser radiation to drive exceptionally narrow transitions in strontium atoms. This new approach will enable these quantum sensors to be scaled up to the size required for sensitive searches for dark matter and ultimately the detection of gravitation waves."

In January 2021, the AION collaboration was one of seven projects to receive a share of £31 million of UKRI investment, through the National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP), to demonstrate how quantum technologies could solve some of the greatest mysteries in fundamental physics.

Professor Ian Shipsey FRS, Head of Department for Physics, was instrumental in establishing the NQTP programme in the applications of quantum sensing to fundamental physics research, having previously helped to establish a similar programme in the US. He said: “With the support of the University and our alumni and friends, we were able to construct the quietest building in Europe in order to conduct atom scale experiments. It is therefore highly appropriate that the AION collaboration chose the Beecroft Building to host what will be the largest piece of quantum technology yet built in the UK”.

The AION programme aims to make the UK a leading player in future mid-band gravity-wave measurements, where there is great potential for ground-breaking discoveries. It will also contribute to the development of technology for a new class of applications of precision measurement instruments in surveying.

The latest round of UKRI investment supports the existing Quantum Technologies for Fundamental Physics (QTFP) programme, which receives joint funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It seeks to incentivise high-risk discovery to demonstrate how quantum tech can address long-standing questions in fundamental physics – from the exploration of gravity in new ranges of frequency to dark matter detection.

Professor Grahame Blair, Executive Director for Programmes at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), said: “This new cohort of projects should make a valuable contribution to our understanding of the universe using cutting-edge quantum tech such as quantum computing, imaging, sensing and simulations.

“The new grants continue to support the UK research community in exploring the diversity of quantum technology applications for fundamental science, from neutrino mass studies to searches for violations of fundamental symmetries of nature.”

Full details of new funding and the quantum projects it will support can be found on the UKRI website.