Quantum technologies are poised to expand the realm of engineering  into capabilities that were unthinkable until just a decade ago.

But quantum is not science fiction, it’s happening right now – you can already buy quantum-dot TVs,  or mobile phones with quantum-enhanced encryption.

To continue developing and applying the cutting-edge technologies in these fields demands a deep understanding of their quantum nature. This understanding can also be used to develop devices and capabilities that have no precedent, like quantum computers and quantum secure telecommunications.

UNSW is at the forefront of teaching for the growing quantum technology industry, which CSIRO has predicted could be worth over $4 billion in revenue for Australia by 2040 and create 16,000 new jobs.

CSIRO’s Chief Scientist Cathy Foley has said: “Quantum technology is set to transform electronics, communications, computation, sensing and other fields. It will create new markets, new applications and new jobs in Australia.”

But what is quantum really all about, and what exciting opportunities are on offer for those who study quantum engineering?

We spoke to quantum expert, UNSW Scientia Professor Andrea Morello, to give you all the answers.

Q: What does “quantum” mean?

A: Quantum is the attribute of all physical objects whose behaviour is governed by the Uncertainty Principle, which states that one cannot know the position and the momentum (mass times velocity) of a particle with infinite precision.

This has radical consequences for microscopic objects such as electrons, atoms and molecules. For example, the uncertainty in the position of an electron is the fundamental reason why we have chemical bonds – the same reason why you exist. However, nowadays we can engineer much larger objects, such as electronic circuits, that display a similar behaviour.

Q: What is quantum engineering?

A: Quantum engineering is an emerging discipline that seeks to exploit the special behaviour of quantum systems in order to achieve novel functionalities. The quantum principles of uncertainty and superposition can be applied to design computers that can solve extremely complex problems.

They are already applied to make ultra-stable clocks, for example used in GPS systems. They can be used to transmit data with higher privacy. And we have only just started to realise what applications may exist in the future.

Q: What skills does a quantum engineer need to have?

A: Quantum engineering is an extension and expansion of the knowledge base involved in electronics, microwave and telecommunications engineering, computer science, augmented with the knowledge of quantum physics.

A quantum engineer must understand microelectronics, high-frequency electronics, programming, and learn how to apply them to design and build new devices that exploit quantum phenomena.

Q: What does a quantum engineer do?

A: Quantum engineers may be employed in a wide range of tasks. They may design, fabricate and operate quantum computer hardware. They may develop bespoke electronic devices to interface quantum hardware with classical hardware.

They may write quantum or classical computer code for specific applications, for instance in finance, medicine, transport, defence, or material science. They may build and operate quantum sensors for mining or space applications. They may build communication networks that send quantum entangled photons through optical fibres.

Q: What jobs exist for quantum engineers?

A: Quantum engineers are in extremely high demand. In Australia alone, CSIRO forecasts 16,000 new jobs by 2040. This may not seem like a lot, but there definitely aren’t 16,000 qualified people right now – not even 1,600!

Quantum Engineers are sought for jobs in start-up companies that build novel quantum computers, sensors, or communication systems. Many technology giants (Google, IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Amazon) are expanding their work in quantum technologies and hiring quantum engineers worldwide, including Australia.

Government and Defence needs quantum engineers, and so do universities, to train the next generation of experts.

Q: Is the quantum engineering degree too narrow? Will it hinder my job prospects?

A: No. Quantum Engineers who study at UNSW learn all the same basic engineering skills as regular electrical engineers, including design proficiency. They are employable in the same jobs where an electrical engineer can be employed. But, in addition, they can access quantum-specific jobs where their unique know-how is highly sought after.

Q: How far in the future is the application of quantum engineering?

A: Quantum engineering is with us today. All modern electronic devices are fabricated at the scale of nanometres, where quantum effects are key to controlling the flow of electrons. The fanciest televisions use QLED technology, where “Q” stands for “quantum dots”, nanoscale semiconductor devices that emit bright light.

GPS navigation relies upon atomic clocks based on quantum effects. Superconducting quantum sensors are used to discover mineral deposits in remote areas, and atom-based sensors are used in defence applications to detect enemy submarines. Quantum random number generators are used to provide truly random cryptography keys for secure communications over the internet.

Small-scale quantum computers can be accessed through the cloud and are being tested for solving problems in chemistry, finance, logistics, and many more.

Q: Do I need to study higher mathematics in high school to access the quantum engineering degree at UNSW?

A: All engineering degrees at UNSW assume knowledge of Mathematics Extension 1 and Physics ), however UNSW has bridging courses for those who may be missing one of these. Students who have enjoyed Mathematics Extension 2 will love applying their knowledge of complex numbers and much, much more in quantum engineering.