Quantum technology vendor Aquark has been handed a £3.4 million ($4.27m) contract to develop the UK’s first commercially available cold atom clock.

It will receive funding from the government innovation agency Innovate UK via its Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) competition “Quantum-enabled positioning, navigation and timing systems.”

Aquark is developing a cold atom clock – Martin Poole/Getty Images

It will use the cash to develop its device, which it refers to as the AQlock.

What is a cold atom clock?

Cold atom clocks are extremely precise tools that measure time by using atoms that have been cooled to nearly absolute zero.

Atomic frequencies offer high levels of stability and consistency, allowing clocks based on them to operate for millions of years without losing a second.

Aquark says it uses a unique laser cooling method in AQlock, known as a super molasses, which does not require an applied magnetic field to trap atoms. This makes the clock more portable and robust than other cold atom clocks and easier to produce commercially.

Using cold atoms as a basis for position, navigation, and timing (PNT) systems could enable a step change in performance and autonomy compared to existing PNT solutions. However, the required components of cold-atom traps used to-date have rendered them too complex, large and power-intensive for meaningful real-world use.

Aquark believes it has overcome this major limitation by minimizing the need for magnetic field control and miniaturizing its cold-atom engine.

It has previously proved the feasibility of its cold atom clock technology in another Innovate UK project, including a technical demonstration of an open-loop clock signal.

Andrei Dragomir, CEO of Aquark, said: “The award from Innovate UK allows us to transition the AQlock to commercial readiness, including extensive lab and live-environment testing.

“Delivery of the AQlock will open up quantum-enabled systems for global PNT, and simultaneously establish a UK-prioritised supply chain, providing the opportunity for wholesale transition away from GNSS dependency and replacing vulnerable systems with UK quantum technology.

The AQlock is designed to integrate into existing systems as an accompaniment or augmentation to global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) enabled technology, Aquark said. Initial target sectors for the device include telecoms, defense, finance, and aviation.

The UK’s plan to stay on time

The SBRI competition was held to try and deliver quantum-enabled systems for PNT, and quantum-enabled sensors for navigation applications, such as magnetic or gravity field sensors.

It was launched to try and mitigate the UK’s reliance on global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) for PNT applications, which has been identified as potentially problematic as such systems are increasingly susceptible to jamming or other disruptions.

The need to develop more resilient PNT systems to underpin critical national infrastructure has been identified by the UK government in a framework developed by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, as well as in the nation’s National Quantum Strategy. A week-long GNSS outage could cost the UK economy £7.6 billion ($9.54bn).

Roger McKinlay, challenge director for quantum technologies at Innovate UK, said: “I’m delighted Aquark has been awarded this contract as we seek to establish a sovereign and secure supply chain in this critical technology area”.

In March, The UK’s National Physical Laboratory launched an innovation node with a focus on the application of accurate and precise timing in new technologies.

The innovation nodes are part of NPL’s National Timing Centre (NTC) program, which is the UK’s first nationally distributed time infrastructure that provides secure, reliable, resilient and highly accurate time and frequency data.

It is hoped NTC will aid the acceleration of new technologies such as time-critical 5G and 6G applications, next generation automated factories and connected autonomous vehicles.