Diamond-based quantum sensors add sparkle to earth and space exploration

- Ottawa, ON, Canada

"SDT Quantum CP magnet sensor static"

What do diamonds and shipwrecks have in common?

SBQuantum, a Canadian startup, produces innovative magnetic sensors using flaws in diamonds to significantly improve the sensitivity and reach of magnetometers. For 200 years, magnetometers have used the Earth’s magnetic signals to find shipwrecks and debris under water, pinpoint new mining sites and help the military locate and classify objects.

Behind this sensor technology is a team of researchers from the National Research Council of Canada, McGill University, the University of Sherbrooke and SBQuantum. This team brings theoretical studies and experimentation results, which SBQuantum then engineers into the product for validation.

“This is a good example of how lab research can directly improve a market-ready product,” says Dr. Khabat Heshami, a research officer in the Theory and Computation Group at the NRC’s Security and Disruptive Technologies Research Centre. He points out that this innovative quantum technology offers several ways of detecting magnetic fields using a diamond’s nitrogen-vacancy centre (an atomic defect where a nitrogen atom sits next to a vacant site). Through their experimental and applied research, the team discovered a new way of probing those defects, leading to serious improvements in the magnetometer’s sensitivity and reach.

According to SBQuantum CEO and co-founder, David Roy-Guay, tests have indicated that this magnetometer could offer 10 times greater sensitivity than a previous prototype. “This means we’ll be able to see objects from a greater distance, identify smaller fluctuations in the world’s magnetic field and make more accurate maps for navigation.”

Miners, for example, will be able to see deeper into the ground, find smaller ore bodies and discover critical new minerals, all without using a drill. In the defence sector, military personnel will be able to detect objects such as submarines more accurately from greater distances. And in space, scientists will see smaller fluctuations in the magnetic field, helping them create more accurate maps for navigation.

“By exploiting the quantum properties in nitrogen vacancy diamonds, we have also engineered the various components into a compact form,” says Roy-Guay. The sensors will be small enough to fit into a backpack or load onto a drone. Theyalso operate at room temperature and don’t require expensive cooling methods, making them easier to deploy for large-scale magnetic detection.

Gems from the NRC

As a small but rapidly growing Canadian startup, SBQuantum has benefitted from working with the NRC as part of the Quantum Sensors Challenge program. “The program has given the company access to many resources and knowledge bases that are not readily available to them in-house, helping to speed time to market,” says Dr. Aimee K. Gunther, the program’s deputy director.

“Our main NRC research collaborator, Dr. Heshami, brought the novel idea to the table of probing multiple magnetically sensitive atomic orientations at the same time,” says Roy-Guay. This is different from current methods that use 1 level to detect small changes in the magnetic field. This method will provide a faster way to detect changes in the surrounding magnetic field. “The NRC also understands that research needs to be applied to the real world.” To that end, he is pleased to report that the project took under 12 months to go from an idea in the lab to a prototype in their device.

“We are one of the first to develop this portable device on diamond technology,” reports Roy-Guay. He also believes that funding from the Quantum Sensors Challenge program, as part of the Collaborative Science, Technology and Innovation program, is helping to keep SBQuantum at the forefront of quantum science, maintain their agility and continually advance against the competition.

Diamonds in space

We are surrounded by invisible, constantly fluctuating magnetic fields. The sensors in SBQuantum’s diamond-powered quantum magnetometer train a machine learning algorithm to compensate for changes that may lead to magnetic field interference. This provides more accurate measurements of the World Magnetic Model, the standard for navigation, attitude and heading reference systems using the globe’s geomagnetic field.

Countless aircraft, ships, cars, trucks and smartphones rely on this model to navigate their locations. But, with shifts in the Earth’s magnetic field accelerating, the model must be monitored closer than ever and updated more often to make sure it remains accurate, while keeping people and goods flowing safely.

Breaking new barriers, SBQuantum’s sensors will soon be heading into space as part of the MagQuest Challenge. Led by the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, MagQuest is a multi-million-dollar competition to find more precise and efficient ways to map the model.

“The space program will build the next version of the World Magnetic Model,” says Roy-Guay. “As one of the participants, we will be launching the world’s tiniest quantum technology satellite to develop maps with greater precision as well as release and update them more often.” He adds that “testing our instrument in space represents a fantastic opportunity to show the entire industry what we have built here in Canada.”

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