What are quantum computers and quantum sensors?
Quantum hardware platforms enable the initiation and manipulation of quantum states. When combined with more established electronics, quantum phenomena enable new computing and sensing possibilities. Quantum computers require a large number of entangled logic qubits to exponentially reduce computation times, with several competing modalities aimed at reducing error rates and improving scalability.
Application specific versus vertical agnostic
Few would deny that the hype about quantum computers far outweighs that of quantum sensors. While quantum computers regularly hit the headlines while featuring in science fiction and popular culture (including a recent episode of the TV series Black Mirror), quantum sensors have yet to enter the public consciousness. Even within the quantum technology community, quantum computing often overshadows interest in quantum sensing—look no further than most industry conference agendas and scientific abstracts.
Quantum computers attract most of the interest because of their simple elevator pitch: an exponential reduction in computation time that makes it possible to solve much more complex problems than currently. Everyone uses a computer, so they can easily appreciate the possibility of a much faster and more capable computer. The surge of interest in artificial intelligence (AI) only serves to amplify interest in quantum computing. Furthermore, while the specific problems that quantum computers are best suited to address in each industry vary, the additional processing capabilities of a quantum computer are largely market agnostic.
In contrast to this “one-to-many” technology-to-application mapping of quantum computers, quantum sensors are much more application specific. In fact, the “quantum sensing” category represents a wide variety of devices, each with a limited number of specific use cases. Device types include magnetic field sensors, gyroscopes, gravimeters, photodetectors, and even atomic clocks. Use cases for these sensor types range from remote current sensing in electric vehicles and biomagnetic brain scanning to underground mapping and precision navigation. As such, the value offered by quantum sensing is specific to the aerospace, automotive, geophysical survey, and medical imaging industries. This technology-to-application specificity leads to a more fragmented ecosystem than quantum computing, leading to diluted hype and competition.
Public and research interest in “quantum computing” is arguably superseding interest in “quantum sensing”. Source: IDTechEx
Government funding vs private funding
Columns dedicated to new technologies and market opportunities do not always correlate. The relative lack of hype in quantum sensing does not reflect a smaller market opportunity, at least in the short to medium term—in fact, quite the opposite is more likely true. For example, funding is one of the biggest influences on the speed at which quantum technology comes to market.
Globally, public spending is typically divided between computing, sensing (and imaging), and communications (networking). In many cases, the expenses for sensing, component manufacturers, and imaging are comparable to, if not greater than, those for quantum computing. This allocation of funds suggests that governments see societal benefits in supporting the development of quantum sensors.
Behind the headlines and buzzwords, the combined funding of quantum sensing, imaging, timing and components is comparable, if not greater, than that of quantum computing. IDTechEx chart. Data sources: UK – Quantum Challenge Fund, US – Quantum National Strategy, EU – Quantum Flagship website and CORDIS database, Japan – Kaken database (keyword search).
High volume versus high value
A critical difference in the material opportunity for the quantum sensing and quantum computing markets is that while the former has the potential to sell large volumes of hardware, the latter depends on high-value shared-access hardware. Precision and secure navigation applications can drive the use of quantum sensors and atomic clocks in large volumes. Source: IDTechEx
A quantum sensing application with potential for high hardware sales is timing and inertial navigation systems. Combinations of atomic clocks and quantum gyroscopes/accelerometers can provide precision navigation capabilities, even in global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) environments. Until now, chip-scale atomic clocks have remained expensive due to manufacturing complexity, which limits their use. But as more quantum foundry and fabrication facilities become available and investment in component and manufacturing optimization increases, IDTechEx predicts that chip-scale atomic clocks will become mainstream. The clearest market would be in autonomous vehicles, where more accurate sensors improve safety and redundancy.
When it comes to quantum computing, most players are convinced that most users will access the hardware via the cloud in the next decade. Unlike some quantum sensors, especially with chip-scale architectures, many quantum computers require large cooling infrastructure and space for readout electronics. As such, hardware vendors will offer access through public and private clouds, often installing a limited number of systems in co-located data centers. In the longer term, the install base of quantum computers “locally” is expected to increase, but not until the technology clearly surpasses classical hardware for value creation problems.
A cloud-based quantum computing ecosystem will limit the number of hardware systems required in the next ten years. Source: IDTechEx
Market size versus CAGR
Overall, although the value of quantum computing hardware will remain high (in some cases millions of dollars per system), volume markets for quantum sensors are expected to give this category the market size advantage over the next ten years. Even excluding tunnel magnetoresistance (TMR) sensors, which have rapidly been used for remote current sensing in electric vehicles, IDTechEx predicts that by 2024 the quantum sensor market will generate more than six times quantum computing hardware revenue.
Looking further ahead to 2034, the market share achieved by both technologies is expected to begin to equalize. By 2034, users who find value in quantum computing are expected to have increased significantly, increasing demand for the install base. Furthermore, many quantum sensing markets outside of navigation and timing may even begin to saturate—as new applications in gravity sensing and medical imaging remain relatively niche. The result would be a faster growing market for quantum computer hardware.
Even excluding established TMR sensors, by 2023 the market for quantum sensor hardware is more than six times the size of quantum computing hardware. Source: IDTechEx
Although still smaller in overall size by 2034, IDTechEx predicts that the quantum computer hardware market will grow three times faster than the quantum sensor market over the next ten years. Source: IDTechEx
The caveat to these conclusions is the strong dependence on how quantum technology will be priced. Many players admit that pricing models for quantum computers are very challenging to produce while the level of quantum commercial readiness remains low – and the price level required for quantum sensors to compete with others in the automotive and consumer markets is also up for debate. Finally, it would be naive to ignore the interplay between the quantum sensor market and the quantum computer market. Quantum sensors are often required to read out quantum bits in quantum computers, and optimization of fundamental components such as lasers, gas cells and photodetectors will be critical to the success of both markets.
Upcoming free to attend webinar
The Next Five Years of Quantum Technology: Hype Vs. reality
In this webinar, IDTechEx will break down the quantum technology market and demystify some of the hype versus reality surrounding quantum computing, sensing and communication technologies.
The following themes will be covered:
- What is the state of the quantum technology market in 2023?
- Quantum Computing: Benchmarking Friends and Foes
- Quantum Sensing: Sensitivity Vs. SWAP-C
- Quantum Communications: Trading on Trust
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