Think modular, think flexible: unlocking innovation in quantum computing

Oxford Instruments NanoScience reckons its Proteox dilution refrigerator will help researchers and start-ups to fast-track the development of next-generation quantum technologies

Harriet van der VlietOxford Instruments NanoScience is set for a busy year after registering the first industry and academic installations of Proteox, a next-generation dilution refrigerator designed for applications in quantum computing R&D and ultra-low-temperature condensed-matter physics. The customers: Oxford Quantum Circuits (OQC), a University of Oxford start-up that’s pioneering a “quantum computing as a service” (QCaaS) business model, and the University of Glasgow’s quantum circuits group, a multidisciplinary research team working at the frontiers of quantum science, technology and application.

In terms of the back story, Oxford Instruments NanoScience is a division of parent group Oxford Instruments, a diversified and long-established UK provider of specialist technologies and services to research and industry. The NanoScience business unit, for its part, designs and manufactures research tools to support the development, scale-up and commercialization of next-generation quantum technologies. Think cryogenic systems (operating at temperatures as low as 5 mK) and high-performance magnets that enable researchers to harness the exotic properties of quantum mechanics – entanglement, tunnelling, superposition and the like – to yield practical applications in quantum computing, quantum communications, quantum metrology and quantum imaging.

Flexible solutions for cold science   

It’s with this quantum opportunity front-and-centre that the fundamentals of the Proteox dilution refrigerator have been reimagined to support multiple scientific users and a variety of ultra-low-temperature experiments from a single system operating in the mK regime. That scalability is achieved with a side-loading “secondary insert” module that allows samples, communications wiring and signal-conditioning components – basically full experimental set-ups – to be installed and changed whenever necessary.

“Proteox is the largest dilution refrigerator in its class with an extensive capacity for integrating components, experimental services and sample mounting,” explains Harriet van der Vliet, product segment manager for quantum technologies at Oxford Instruments NanoScience. “Modularity and flexibility are key,” she adds, “and we work closely with our customers to offer them tailored solutions and experimental set-ups on standard lead times.”

the Proteox dilution refrigerator

With adaptability comes future proofing – effectively a “pay-as-you-grow” offering that allows end users to add new functionality to Proteox as their research requirements evolve and their funding permits. “The customer can specify an entry-level system that’s just a base refrigerator – for example, no magnet and no fast sample exchange,” notes van der Vliet. “Over time, as new research grants or start-up investments are secured, it’s possible to upgrade your Proteox and purchase different secondary inserts, such as the rapid-sample-exchange bottom-loader, as well as taller frames and a variety of magnets. The freedom to upgrade the Proteox is a key design feature, bringing unparalleled value for money to the dry dilution-refrigerator market.”  

Quantum collaboration

The development of Proteox looks to be well-timed, tapping as it does the growing technology push and commercial pull within the “quantum economy” – not least in the UK. Last year, for example, a research/industry consortium led by OQC, and including Oxford Instruments NanoScience, secured £7 million in funding from Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, to fast-track the commercialization of superconducting quantum technologies.

Broadly, that upfront investment will support fabrication of superconducting quantum circuits and the scale-up of core enabling infrastructure such as specialist cryogenic equipment and state-of-the-art test electronics – all of which currently represent a significant barrier to entry for companies seeking to access emerging quantum markets and applications. The consortium is eyeing multiple revenue opportunities in the near term, including QCaaS, cryogenic measurement as a service (MaaS) as well as a contract foundry offering.

Ilana Wisby

“Our strategy at OQC is to build the core, in terms of our quantum computer, and to partner with the best,” says Ilana Wisby, CEO of OQC. As such, Oxford Instruments NanoScience represents a natural partner when it comes to the enabling cryogenic technologies for QCaaS. “Put simply,” adds Wisby, “the Proteox platform allows us to efficiently and reliably generate the ultra-low temperatures needed to operate our quantum computer.”

There’s a pleasing circularity to this tie-up. While Oxford Instruments was one of the first spin-out companies to emerge from the University of Oxford’s research programme (back in 1959), the established manufacturer is now supporting OQC and other start-ups and research groups in the UK’s nascent quantum supply chain. That sense of collective endeavour, it seems, also informs OQC’s mindset. “With our main focus on QCaaS,” notes Wisby, “we do think it’s important to play our part in developing a healthy quantum ecosystem for the UK. That will pay off for us in the long run through new collaborations and the opportunity to work with the brightest talents in the field.”

Cool customers

The original version of OQC’s quantum computer was developed using Triton, the previous generation of cryogen-free refrigeration technology from Oxford Instruments NanoScience. The move to Proteox, and the incorporation of the new refrigeration system into OQC’s state-of-the-art laboratory earlier this month, marks a significant milestone in the start-up’s commercial roll-out of its QCaaS and MaaS offering. “We’ve been able to collaborate closely with the engineering team at Oxford Instruments NanoScience to develop high-density wiring solutions that meet our specific requirements,” explains Wisby. “Ultimately that is going to help us to scale the number of qubits in a cost- and space-efficient way.”

Another feature of Proteox is ease of use. For starters, an all new web-based control system combines remote connectivity with push-button automation routines, while enhanced data interrogation and visualization software offers live plotting of key process parameters – for example, the temperatures and pressures at relevant stages of the system cool down. “The intuitive user interface ensures we spend our time building cutting-edge quantum computers rather than focusing on whether things get cold,” adds Wisby.

Gearing up for exotic physics at ultra-low temperatures

The University of Glasgow’s quantum circuits group announced in January that it is also using the Proteox dilution refrigerator to support its wide-ranging R&D effort in superconducting quantum technologies, including dedicated initiatives spanning superconducting spintronics, quantum-engineered nanoelectronic circuits and quantum information processing.

“We’re excited to be using Proteox, the latest in cryogen-free refrigeration technology, and to have the system up and running in our lab,” explains Martin Weides, head of Glasgow’s quantum circuits group. “Proteox is designed with quantum scale-up in mind, and through the use of its secondary insert technology, we’re able to easily characterize and develop integrated chips and components for quantum computing applications.”

The University of Glasgow, its subsidiary and commercialization partner, Kelvin Nanotechnology, and Oxford Instruments NanoScience are part of the OQC-led R&D consortium developing specialist foundry and measurement services to support the commercialization of superconducting quantum technologies (see main article). Other consortium partners include quantum computing pioneer SeeQC UK and the SuperFab nanofabrication facility at Royal Holloway, University of London.

For research customers like Glasgow, one of the main features of Proteox is its enhanced workflow efficiency – especially when, as is often the case, there might be several PhD students and postdocs all seeking access to the system at the same time. “The larger experimental space of Proteox, and the flexibility afforded by the secondary insert architecture, means the user can now transfer their wiring set-up in and out of that space easily and quickly,” explains Harriet van der Vliet, product segment manager for quantum technologies at Oxford Instruments NanoScience.

“Turnaround is a big issue for scientists working at ultra-low temperatures,” she continues. “Proteox makes life a lot easier and translates into significant enhancements in terms of workflow, throughput and, ultimately, research productivity.”

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