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The National Metrology Institute

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The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is the UK’s national metrology institute, with responsibility for developing and maintaining the national primary measurement standards.  NPL is also home to the Quantum Metrology Institute (QMI), which is funded by the Department for Business Energy
and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) as part of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme (UKNQTP). The QMI brings together all of NPL’s leading-edge quantum science and quantum metrology research to provide expertise and facilities for the UK’s industry and academia to test and validate new quantum technologies, ahead of commercialisation.

The partnership with the Hub

NPL has been a major delivery partner of the Hub’s work since the original phase of the National Programme. The Quantum Communications Hub is the only one in the network of Hubs with dedicated investigative activity focused on the development of industrial standards for the sector, a natural outcome of the commercialisation readiness potential in this field.  

A number of Hub researchers and PhD students have been seconded to NPL in Teddington. They work closely with NPL metrology experts to develop and implement methods for characterising quantum communications hardware, addressing laboratory prototypes including chip-scale devices, as well as systems deployed on the UKQNtel network. Establishing a link to the Hub-created UK Quantum Communication Network is planned; this will enable real-time testing of QKD systems on the network.

NPL is a member of the ETSI Industry Specification Group (ISG) for QKD, members of which sit on the Hub’s external advisory board. Test standards developed by this group will be used to verify and validate system performance, thus providing a mechanism for QKD to become trusted in the marketplace, deployed by service providers and used with confidence. The work with the Hub has contributed to the expertise that NPL has been able to bring to its ETSI activities, two examples of which include the Group Specification on Quantum Key Distribution component characterization and the ETSI White Paper on implementation security of quantum cryptography.

Beyond testing hardware on the UK Quantum Network and work on standards, a major new area of collaboration between NPL and the Hub in the current, second phase of the programme, relates to the study of Quantum Random Number Generators (QRNGs). This builds on the foundations established by a Hub Partnership Resource funded feasibility study during Phase 1; that study also led to a current major ISCF project on Assurance/Certification of QRNGs, co-ordinated by NPL and involving Hub academic (Universities of Kent and York) and industrial (CryptaLabs, IDQ, KETS, Nu Quantum, Toshiba, etc.) partners, and the National Cyber Security Centre who participate in an advisory role. 

Looking ahead

NPL’s involvement in quantum communications field trials predates their collaboration with the Hub; in 2014, as part of an Innovate UK funded project led by NPL, a field trial involving Toshiba, BT, ADVA and NPL was announced as the UK’s first successful trial of QKD technology over a live ‘lit’ fibre network. Since then, and in parallel to its work with the Hub, NPL has lent its expertise to many large-scale quantum networking projects within the UK and abroad.

In the UK, NPL is currently participating in the following large-scale, ISCF funded, collaborative consortia: AQuaSec (Agile Quantum Safe Communications, aimed at developing flexible, low cost and user-friendly prototypes for quantum-safe communication networks); 3QN, focused on designing and building such affordable prototype modular optical QKD receivers that can be used to receive quantum keys from satellites using different QKD transmitters; and AIRQKD, seeking to establish a UK ecosystem, from single-photon components to networked quantum systems, to protect short to mid-range communication in free space. Outside the UK, NPL is a partner in the Horizon 2020 funded OPENQKD project, with long-term collaborators and Hub partners ADVA, BT, ID Quantique, Toshiba and the University of Cambridge. The project aims to create and test a prototype pan-European quantum network infrastructure that will experimentally trial the future security of critical data applications in the fields of telecommunications, health care, electricity supply and government services, and kick-start a European competitive QKD industry. It is also a partner in the  European Metrology Programme for Innovation and Research MeTISQ project, with other European national laboratories and ID Quantique and Toshiba. This project aims to develop SI-traceable measurements for quantum key distribution (QKD) systems and technologies to support the standards development work of ETSI.

NPL’s wide portfolio of research in quantum technologies, undertaken through the QMI, spans multiple areas in addition to quantum communications including: superconducting qubits, ion traps and software benchmarking for future quantum computers, quantum clocks, quantum-electrical standards and quantum sensors, and quantum photonics including the development of a suite of measurement capabilities for the characterisation of single-photon sources and detectors.

The breadth of the work carried out by NPL at the QMI is further demonstrated by their recent success in securing funding through three major collaborative projects as part of the Quantum Technologies for Fundamental Physics programme, also part of the UKNQTP. NPL will be involved in ‘QSNET’, aimed at exploiting the precision of atomic, molecular and ion clocks to explore any currently unknown effects at the quantum level. They will also be involved in ‘Quantum Sensors for the Hidden Sector’ which aims to contribute to the search of axions, low-mass ‘hidden’ particles that are candidates to solve the mystery of dark matter; and ‘Determination of Absolute Neutrino Mass using Quantum Technologies’ which will harness recent breakthroughs in quantum technologies to determine the absolute mass of neutrinos.

NPL is also a partner in the European Metrology Network for Quantum Technologies (EMN-Q) which aims to actively co-ordinate European measurement science research to maintain European competitiveness in the field of quantum technologies.

Recently, NPL launched the ‘Measurement for Quantum’ programme which aids the development of quantum products and services in the UK by offering quantum measurement advice and short-term measurement projects to companies at no charge. Through this programme, NPL aims to bridge the gap between prototypes and market-ready products and thus facilitate more products going to market, more quickly, within the UK.

NPL is delivering a major programme in support of the National Quantum Technologies Programme and plans to continue with this work for the future with the metrology of quantum communications systems always remaining a key part of the programme. The capabilities being developed by NPL will support the long-term UK needs for secure communications, maintaining close collaboration with industry, academia and other parts of government. NPL wishes to build stronger collaborations with organisations around the UK, aiming to deliver capability to end users in partnership with others in the quantum community.

Speaking about NPL’s partnership with the Hub, Head of the NPL Quantum Metrology Institute, Rhys Lewis, said:

Rhys Lewis

“The collaboration between NPL and the Quantum Communications Hub is an important part of the National Programme. We are very appreciative of the resources which the Hub has placed alongside NPL scientists and are very pleased to offer an additional environment for research and training. The wider collaboration between our two organisations and the quantum community will undoubtedly grow in importance and value to the UK over time.”   

Tim SpillerHub Director, Professor Tim Spiller said:

“Growth of markets for new quantum communications technologies, leading to widespread adoption, will rely crucially on industrial standards, along with assurance of performance. We very much appreciate our collaboration with NPL on these key activities and we look forward to continuing this productive partnership with NPL, as sector progress continues towards commercialisation.”