The idea of smart SQUIDs searching beneath the ground might conjure images of mechanised cephalopods haunting the subterranean zone in The Matrix, an association that isn’t lost on Dr Marcel Bick.
“It sounds terrible,” concedes the Business Development Manager for ICT-Enabled Manufacturing and Industrial Innovation at CSIRO.
But SQUID stands for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device, and the SQUIDs’ targets aren’t red-pilled freedom fighters resisting the tyranny of machines, but bodies of ore deep within the Earth’s crust. Welcome to the mind-bending world of resources and quantum science.
SQUIDs, coils and calls to the crust
Quantum is a multilayered concern for CSIRO, as Australia jostles to be a world leader in a lane of science that is a firm priority for the US and China.
The national agency’s Quantum Technologies Future Science Platform is exploring how sensing, communication, and computation can be transformed by the emerging technologies.
Quantum is being watched on many fronts, including the ways it might revolutionise banking, encrypt communication and bolster the search for minerals.
SQUIDs aren’t a recent development, but their use as part of LandTEM, CSIRO’s portable exploration tool, is.
If a mining company uses LandTEM to search for a deposit of copper, for instance, it first puts a large coil in the ground. It works best for highly conductive materials like copper, silver and nickel that contrast with the rock around them.
The coil injects an electromagnetic field into the earth, and the pulse elicits a response, called the Eddy current, from the ore.
That response is measured by the SQUID. The technology uses quantum sensors to detect magnetic fields a mere 100 millionth the size of Earth’s.
“The larger the target, the bigger the signal gets, and the deeper the target, the smaller the signal gets,” Dr Bick says.
“What LandTEM has done is basically replace other magnetic sensors. It is being used in Australia and in North America, specifically Canada.”
As well as mining companies in Canada, LandTEM has already been used by Glencore, Legend Mining, Mincor Resources, Western Areas and Aeris Resources.
Legend announced last September that LandTEM had helped it detect prospective nickel deposits in Western Australia.
The technology has earned a place as a case study in the National Quantum Strategy, where it is credited with the discovery of more than $10 billion worth of ore deposits globally, including $4 billion in Australia.
LandTEM has reduced companies’ exploration costs by nearly a third.
A strange world beneath classical physics
Of all the LinkedIn profiles at CSIRO, Dr Muhammad Usman’s is among the most intriguing, fast-evolving and hardest to explain to anyone who might ask, “so, what do you do?”
His multi-disciplinary background in physics, engineering, and computer science, and his research work encompassing both quantum hardware and software fronts makes him a unique expert to work on the development of quantum technologies.
The Victoria-based Team Leader for Quantum Systems has been with the agency for about a year.
He leads a team of about 20 researchers working on a dizzying array of projects.
While some version of quantum science has been around since the 20th Century, and we, the public, ponder its ideas over popcorn through movies like 2022’s award-winning Everything Everywhere all at Once, it is an area of physics that exists on a knife edge of human understanding.
It’s an invisible world with hi-viz ramifications for mineral exploration in Australia.
Mining is notoriously complex. It involves webs of geological analysis, drilling, blasting, excavating and processing.
The industry is always looking for ways to optimise itself, reduce costs and increase efficiency.
One benefit of quantum computing will be its ability to process vast swathes of data and perform complex calculations at a much faster rate than classical computers.
This is especially useful in mining, where the data generated from drilling, exploration, and mineral analysis is gargantuan.
Quantum computing may help mining companies process data more quickly and accurately, unlocking better informed decision-making.
“What we observe and experience in everyday life is classical physics, on the macroscopic scale, or Newtonian physics,” Dr Muhammad says.
“But when you get down to the level of subatomic particles, that is the quantum scale, and that is where interesting things start to happen.”
It is a world of strange effects: interference and uncertainty and entanglement.
Quantum computing is a fledgling yet burgeoning field with the potential to revolutionise the way we process and analyse information.
Unlike classical computing, which uses bits that can only exist in two states (either zero or one), quantum computing uses quantum bits or qubits that can exist in many states at the same time, triggering exponential increases in computing power.
“The real quantum leap”
The next quantum disruptions to mining may not be specifically aimed at mining, Dr Bick says, but could fall into the category of post-quantum cryptography (or PQC).
Classical, or non-quantum, cryptography already exists across Australian mining to help companies protect their data, communications and transactions from unauthorised access and manipulation.
Cryptography also plays a part in securing the Internet of Things devices that are used in mining, like sensors, drones and autonomous vehicles.
In this way, the expected expansion of quantum is a rising tide that will lift all boats, including mining.
Modern though the use of SQUIDs and quantum sensors by LandTEM may be, the tool was built on a method invented in the 1960s.
“Sometimes people call that Quantum 1.0, and now we are in Quantum 2.0,” Dr Bick says.
“Some people say that the quantum computer will be the real quantum leap. So when, and if, the quantum computer will be fully error-corrected and a useful machine, that will be groundbreaking. That will really change our world.”
Various experts put that development five or 10 years from now, while others predict it will never happen. For now, quantum is helping Australian miners search the ground before they break it. It is safe to say we’ve just scratched the surface of its potential.