Ministers are to launch a 10-year programme to invest £2.5bn in quantum computing, aiming to keep the UK competitive in one of the world’s fastest- moving fields of technology.
The Plan for Quantum will more than double the funding that is available to researchers in industry and universities under the present £1bn National Quantum Technologies Programme, according to Whitehall insiders.
The programme, to be announced by chancellor Jeremy Hunt in Wednesday’s Budget, is intended to put more money behind a government pledge to turn Britain into “the next Silicon Valley”.
The National Quantum Computing Centre, nearing completion on the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire, will play a leading role in the expanded programme. But the government aims to distribute support around the country as part of a push to create a “future network of research hubs”.
Although the promise to boost spending on quantum computing over 10 years will be welcomed by the sector, the pledge will not bind a future Labour government, if the opposition party wins the next election.
“We’re extremely pleased to see the UK government’s commitment to quantum,” said Steve Metcalfe, chief executive of Quantum Exponential, a London-based quantum investment company, ahead of the announcement.
But he added: “To create a market, we need a joined-up approach between government and the investment community, which includes areas such as pension funds to ensure that there’s the level of start-up investment needed — and that ultimately, the UK plays a pivotal role in the acceleration and commercialisation of the industry.”
Richard Murray, head of Orca Computing, which has sold a quantum computer to the Ministry of Defence, said the government’s proposal had “huge potential”.
“The UK is a hotbed for quantum innovation, and we now really have the chance to break through commercially and develop quantum technologies further into practical uses, particularly in computing where we are already strong.”
Computers that operate on the principles of quantum mechanics could in theory far surpass the power of conventional machines for solving certain types of problems, such as searching vast databases and designing new materials.
But their practical application faces formidable technical challenges, in particular working out how to correct the errors that plague today’s experimental quantum devices.
The US and China dominate the quantum sector. Their governments and large tech companies such as Google and IBM are investing billions of dollars in quantum technology.
But the UK is well ahead of the rest of Europe in the number of quantum start-ups, according to a survey published last month by Sifted, the start-up publication backed by the Financial Times. The country boasts 39, compared with Germany’s 18 and 15 each in the Netherlands and France.
The new government programme aims to boost homegrown companies while attracting quantum businesses to move to the UK from overseas with investment support.
Another strand of the Plan for Quantum will address the severe shortage of qualified workers that is holding back the field worldwide. New training schemes will be targeted at scientists, engineers and technicians.
The Treasury declined to comment.