Researchers are presently developing technologies that apply the complex physics of atomic and subatomic particles to undertake useful engineering based on quantum mechanics. There are three areas under the broad heading of “quantum technologies” that are of interest to mining OEMs and operators: quantum sensing, quantum key distribution, and quantum computation.
Quantum sensing uses quantum mechanical phenomena to construct extremely sensitive instruments, such as magnetometers and gravitometers. Some technologies (such as superconducting quantum interference devices, highly sensitive magnetometers) have been used in a laboratory context for decades. Adopting these technologies to rugged field conditions has taken longer, but several examples (LANDTEM magnetometers in Australia) are already in use as Horizon 1 technologies. Other sensors, such as quantum gravity gradiometer work at the University of Birmingham in the UK, are Horizon 2. This technology, mostly relevant to the exploration phase, is not in scope for this report. However, there may be applications in ongoing orebody modelling and mine situational awareness.
Quantum key distribution is an encryption technology. It allows two parties to exchange encryption keys while being able to detect if those keys were snooped on or tampered with during the exchange. This is intended to replace current systems, where master encryption keys are typically physically distributed by engineers or couriers. These technologies primarily target high-security government, military, or commercial applications. As a Horizon 2 technology, QKD is still under development, and the benefits are yet to be proven. However, in the longer term this may be relevant for mining operators, who often need to deploy their own network infrastructure in austere conditions, and who face an ever-increasing need for improved cybersecurity.
Quantum computation uses a range of quantum phenomena to perform calculations that would be impossible or infeasible on conventional hardware. Quantum computing is not a replacement for conventional computing. There are many tasks for which it provides no benefit or is simply inappropriate. It does have potential applicability to a broad range of problems in optimization, routing, and physical simulation, with great potential for mining operations research and analysis. Very limited demonstration systems are already available through systems like the IBM Quantum Composer, which provide cloud access to a small number of qubits operated by IBM. From an operator perspective, quantum computing is a Horizon 3 technology, with promising but uncertain potential for modelling, simulation, and decision support. Presently, it might be conceptualised as an extension of current cloud computing services: a powerful off-site analytical/computational asset that will become available through cloud providers or indirectly through specialist consultancy and analytics firms.