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How quantum physics could ‘revolutionise everything’

Growing up on a farm in Australia, Liam Hall was a mechanic “getting greasy, scraped knuckles”, but in recent years his career has taken a more technical turn.

He’s now the head of quantum biotechnology at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency.

“I’ve got a bit of a weird background. I always wanted to be a diesel mechanic. Doing that for a while led to wanting to do engineering at university. That introduced me to the physics, and then to the quantum physics. A rollercoaster ride is a good way to describe it,” he says.

His team has been developing diagnostic technologies, experimenting with micro sensors crafted from tiny slivers of diamonds about 50 nanometers in size (about 1,000 times finer than human hair) to test patients’ iron levels.

Current methods monitor a protein known as ferritin, the body’s iron storage mechanism. While monitoring ferritin is a good way to measure iron, it would be more accurate to measure the actual iron levels inside the protein.

One way to do that would be to measure the tiny magnetic fields generated by the iron. But there’s one big problem with that approach.

“[The magnetic field] is completely tiny and outside the measurement of any traditional magnetometers or microscopes,” explains Dr Hall.

However, Dr Hall’s nano-scale quantum sensors can detect those tiny fields and measure them.

He says in the future, the technology could develop an early flag for any particular disease, including the surveillance of certain hormones or proteins that might indicate cancer.

“The advantage for quantum systems has always been that you can achieve much, much better sensitivity and easier identification of chemicals at a much lower cost,” Dr Hall says.

Dr Hall is part of a global push to develop quantum technologies. Britain, China, the US and countries elsewhere, are all trying to exploit the weird properties of quantum mechanics.

“Quantum is one of Australia’s most promising growth opportunities – a chance to create new markets, new applications,” said CSIRO’s chief scientist, Prof Bronwyn Fox.

Quantum mechanics emerged in the early 20th Century from studies of nature’s smallest objects. Scientists believe it has the potential to expand our understanding of the universe and solve complex problems at lightning speeds.

The range of applications appears vast; from advances in environmental science and decarbonisation, to cyber-security and new medicines. There could be molecules that “eat up carbon” and remove it from the atmosphere, quantum batteries to power cars, aircraft that are designed to lower their emissions and transport logistics to reduce road congestion.


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