Occitania asserts itself in quantum physics and its industrial applications
The creation of the Occitan Quantum Institute, around a dozen public laboratories, attests to the regional desire to count in quantum research and its industrial applications. In addition, to be present in the future of this coming revolution.
Occitania dreams of a quantum leap and entangled particles. While Emmanuel Macron announced a five-year plan of 1.8 billion euros in mid-January, the region intends to make a place for itself in the landscape of research and quantum industrial applications.
“The two university centers of Toulouse and Montpellier have many very active research laboratories …” begins Xavier Marie. This teacher-researcher at Insa Toulouse is at the initiative of the new Occitan Quantum Institute with his colleagues Isabelle Robert-Philip, researcher at CNRS and David Guéry-Odelin, teacher-researcher at Toulouse-III – Paul Sabatier University. “There are not too many of us to boost the regional ecosystem around quantum technologies”, continues Xavier Marie.
Research at such a level can no longer be done alone, they admit. “We can only be strong if we come together! These networks must be set up so that the research community learns to know and trust each other”, as is the case in other fields such as nanotechnology and computing.
First challenge on quantum technologies
The objective of this Occitan quantum institute, officially born on January 1, 2021, is therefore to federate regional forces, to put them in interaction, “which results from a bottom-up approach of academics from the two poles (physics, sciences engineering…), initiated four years ago because of the strategic importance of the subject, ”recalls the researcher. Twelve multidisciplinary laboratories are involved, i.e. around 200 researchers in quantum mechanics and engineering, which mainly address three application areas: secure communications, sensors and metrology, and quantum simulation.
“The local ecosystem is very important and it must be varied, each bringing its expertise, on applications, theory, physics or computer science …” recognizes Frédéric Magniez, research director at the Research Institute in fundamental computer science (Irif). This holder of the annual computer and digital sciences chair at the Collège de France cites the success of the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo in Canada as an example.
Synergies within the Occitan quantum “hub” make it the third national force after Ile-de-France (PCQC, Sirteq) and the Rhône-Alpes basin (Quantum Engineering Grenoble). Supported financially by the region, the Institut quantique occitan is also interested in interfaces with large industrialists and training in quantum engineering. Partnerships and regional excellence,” continues Isabelle Robert-Philip.
Application research is a necessity. At the start of 2021, as part of a “Quantum Technologies” key challenge, led by the CNRS, a first call for projects made it possible to award 12 doctoral thesis grants and 9 postdoctoral contracts. The team is also keen to involve local start-ups and VSEs in this dynamic.
Train engineers in quantum technologies
“The idea is to listen to the demand of manufacturers who fear being held back in terms of innovation due to a lack of skills. Training actions will be offered or reinforced, at the level of engineering schools and doctoral students in initial training, as well as for engineers and technicians in continuing training, ”explains Isabelle Robert-Philip.
Certainly, a few engineering schools in France have courses that include teaching in quantum physics or an introduction to quantum technologies, “but this is still very insufficient. We really have a card to play, including in university training,”insists Xavier Marie.
The Occitan Institute does not intend to work in isolation. “We will work with the other hubs already mentioned, but also with actors from Provence or Aquitaine, where an equivalent institute has just been launched”, adds Isabelle Robert-Philip who recalls the importance of building their actions at the national and European level. “By opening up to all types of collaborations, mainly on two themes that we have identified with manufacturers: sensors and quantum communications for space. On this last aspect, we are leaders in Occitania with demonstrators under development, projects of European scope. ”
Speed up research to go further
Quantum technologies are evolving very quickly … Also, academics, like manufacturers, have understood that a virtuous circle must be established between very upstream research, applied research and technological research. “This field without fundamental research cannot exist, nor a very rapid transfer to the application”, summarizes Xavier Marie.
One of the major challenges of the Occitan initiative will be to sustain the dynamic over the long term, well beyond the four years that the “Key Challenge” of the region must last. In total, 15 to 20 million euros mobilized over five years, ”he concludes.
Finally, in the near future, the research director of Irif, Frédéric Magniez wonders about new academic perspectives. This is the physics applied on a small scale, that of the atom: 1 billionth of a meter. These are the laws making it possible to understand how an electron, a grain of light, a molecule works … They were discovered a hundred years ago, both by theories and by experiments, and have never been put in default. Better. These are the most precise laws ever invented in science, making it possible to predict phenomena 10 digits after the decimal point. The problem: these laws escape our usual intuitions. We live in a “classic” world: objects fall with gravity, they are solid, they are there or absent. At the atomic scale, behaviors are different. We must therefore develop a new intuition, be very open because we do not “see” with our eyes the behaviors that are playing out at the atomic level. We only know about it with deductions, reasoning and measurements.
All of this is very clear. You must be expressing yourself badly!
Let’s go into detail then and take a quantum object like an electron. Until I measure it, try to see where it is, it’s going to be in several places at once. As if he didn’t want to choose his place. Which doesn’t mean he’s going very fast, and you can’t follow him. It is, LITERALLY, in several places at once in probability. And if I try to measure it, it suddenly collapses into one point, among all the possible places. The electron draws lots based on the odds every time I measure it. And really at random. And that happens as soon as you force it to interact with a “big” object. Like a measuring instrument. This is a first strangeness.