Scientists have built a modern quantum accelerator to replace GPS systems in submarines

  • Scientists at the French National Centre for Scientific Research have invented the world’s first 3D quantum accelerometer.
  • The device works using a number of lasers that slowly cool rubidium atoms to a sub-zero temperature.
  • This invention is set to replace traditional GPS and SONAR systems used in submarines and can be used to mine important minerals. 

A team at the French National Centre for Scientific Research has invented a first-of-its-kind 3D quantum accelerometer. This technology might prove to be a boom for underwater vehicles such as submarines. 

What is a quantum accelerometer? 

The quantum accelerometer is a novel invention that allows submarines to detect obstacles along their route and thus chart their course of the journey. It functions better than traditional GPS systems used by such underwater vehicles.

According to a New Scientist article published last week, the accelerometer consists of lasers located along all three spatial axes that can manipulate a cloud of rubidium atoms trapped in a small glass box and chilled nearly to absolute zero. These lasers generate ripples in the cloud of atoms and measure the resulting interference patterns to estimate motion.

This device will measure the wave-like properties of matter. The device functions by using modern lasers to slow down and cool clouds of atoms, allowing them to behave like waves of light, creating interference patterns as they move.

These lasers then measure how these patterns change to track the device’s location through space. Thus essentially replacing traditional SONAR technology.

These devices are renditions of a technology called atom interferometers, but they originally used to be quite bulky. But now scientists have managed to find a solution to that too.

They produced a small practical variety of the quantum accelerometer which is even 3D. The team in France has achieved this in a metal box about the size of a laptop computer.

Replacing traditional GPS systems 

Earlier most submarines used traditional SONAR systems and GPS facilities. However underwater, these systems become quite unreliable and laggy. Moreover, a major issue arises when devices travel out of range for extended periods. For a submarine, it’s almost as if turning blind.

The traditional systems were replaced with mechanical accelerometers however even though they might be useful but not very reliable. They take a long period of time to set up and they’ll accumulate errors on the scale of a few hundred kilometers.

In such a territory, the quantum accelerometer becomes unavoidable and also may serve as a reliable backup navigation on ships should they lose GPS.

Applications of the quantum accelerometer 

Although the current setup of the quantum accelerometer is quite huge to be introduced in other faculties other than submarines such as in mobile devices, with a few tweaks, the team says it could be possible.

For now, they are being installed on ships or submarines for precise navigation and maybe even used by geologists looking for mineral deposits by measuring subtle changes in gravity.

The team in France is not the only one looking to make more practical accelerometers. In September 2019, researchers used the highly conductive nanomaterial graphene to create the world’s smallest accelerometer.

The new technological achievement, created by researchers at KTH, was touted as a potential breakthrough for body sensor and navigation technologies that could be used in mobile and gaming.

Xuge Fan, a researcher in the Department for Micro and Nanosystems at KTH, explained that graphene and its unique properties helped him and his team to create these ultra-small accelerometers. Their study was published as a pre-print paper posted on arXiv in September.


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