Quantum sensing: Poised to realize immense potential in many sectors

by Henning Soller
with Amanda Stein, Martina Gschwendtner, Ronald Walsworth, and Yannick Bormuth

This post summarizes the central takeaways from the in-depth study Quantum sensing can already make a difference. But where? by Yannick Bormuth, Martina Gschwendtner, Henning Soller, Amanda Stein, and Ronald Walsworth, published in the Journal of Innovation Management.

Global demand for high-precision measurements and critical-application data is rising quickly, and quantum sensors have the potential to meet this demand.1 Quantum sensors are based on quantum systems, and quantum sensing can provide measurements with a sensitivity that is orders of magnitude greater than that of classical sensing. While quantum sensing is more mature than other quantum technologies such as computing and communication, a sizable gap remains between the value achieved in laboratories and existing industrial-scale sensing opportunities. However, this gap represents considerable internal market potential. Quantum sensing is projected to reach $0.7 billion to $1.0 billion by 2030 at a CAGR of 10 to 15 percent; according to McKinsey analysis, this internal market is expected to grow to between $1 billion and $6 billion by 2040 and disrupt industries that rely on sensor technology.2

Eventually, quantum-sensing technology could lead to an entirely new ecosystem in which the unobservable can now be observed, thereby providing unique new insights and data sets across many sectors of the economy that could be used to train AI algorithms for wide-ranging applications.

Quantum sensing’s potential becomes tangible when viewed within the context of specific use cases. In this article, we discuss four categories in which this technology is ideally suited to commercial use cases: imaging and diagnostics, navigation, fault analysis, and underground measurements.

Core quantum-sensing technologies

Several quantum-sensing technologies have demonstrated capabilities across a broad range of physical properties, including magnetic fields, electric fields, rotation, acceleration, temperature, gravity, time, and pressure, making them appropriate for a range of commercial applications (Exhibit 1).3

Several quantum-sensing technologies are well suited to a range of commercial applications.

The particular use case informs what quantum sensor to use because each use case requires certain measurement properties and operational environments.4

Existing to long-term commercial use cases for quantum sensing

Exhibit 2 shows how various quantum-sensing technologies could be applied to use cases in multiple industries. While many of these use cases are nascent, several have great promise for providing near-term solutions to problems that business and industry leaders are currently facing.

Quantum sensing shows both short- and long-term potential for use cases in many industries.

Imaging and diagnostics use cases

Quantum sensors may offer the potential for more precise and practical location of magnetic signals in the human body.5 Conventional magnetoencephalography, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and magnetocardiography are limited in their capacity to isolate the signal source, are bulky and fragile, require the use of expensive cryogenics, and must be operated in specially shielded rooms or chambers to contain ambient magnetic noise.6

Quantum biosensors, on the other hand, could offer measurements that are much more precise and could operate in ambient conditions without the need for cryogenics. An array of small neutral-atom or solid-state spin7 quantum biosensors could rapidly pinpoint the location of a magnetic signal within a few millimeters and enable the use of a wearable quantum biosensor system.8 According to McKinsey interviews and discussions with industry experts, such a system could be available by 2030; however, producing such sensors profitably at scale would require a steep increase in manufacturing capabilities.

Navigation use cases

Quantum sensors, including neutral atom or diamond magnetometers, can provide enhanced navigation capabilities for a wide range of vehicles and platforms without the need for GPS satellite signals and even in the presence of environmental noise.9

Reliable navigation in the absence of GPS satellite signals—for example, in overcrowded, shielded, or screened environments; underwater; or underground—is lacking. Existing inertial measurement units, including consumer cell phones and navigation units for military ships and submarines, infer location related to an initial known position and heading. They are limited in terms of reliability and range, require regular recalibration, and can make substantial navigation errors. Quantum sensors require calibration far less frequently and are one to two orders of magnitude more sensitive than conventional technology, enabling measurements that are more granular and accurate.

Further development is needed to make quantum navigation sensors compact, robust, and low-cost enough for widespread use on vehicles and other mobile platforms. Nonetheless, field tests of prototype quantum navigation systems suggest that nitrogen vacancy (NV) diamond sensors and optically pumped magnetometers based on neutral atoms may be ready for commercial use within the next few years.10

Microelectronics use cases

Quantum sensors can also improve the detection of flaws and operational states in microelectronics in the near term by enabling higher sensitivity in functional analysis and aiding in the design of next-generation integrated circuits (ICs) that use 3D architectures.

Currently, tests to ensure that the feature size of magnetic memory bits meets semiconductor fabrication requirements can be done only at the end of production. But quantum magnetic sensors could create memory points to be analyzed during the production process, improving chip design and quality control. NV-diamond sensors could also enable vector magnetic field imaging that, combined with AI image analysis, could detect faults in ICs and electric vehicle batteries; identify malicious circuitry, Trojan attacks, or side-channel attacks in ICs; detect counterfeit chips; and aid in next-generation IC development.11

The first tabletop-size NV-diamond products for microelectronics analysis are already available.

Underground-measurement use cases

Quantum sensors can offer measurements that are far more robust and precise than those of conventional technology in underground and other extreme or harsh environments.12 And accurate magnetic and gravitational mapping below the Earth’s surface can help identify faults and locate minerals, oil, and buried objects or sources of water.13 Quantum sensors are crucial to these use cases because devices would need to be compact—able to fit, for instance, on a drone wing or in the trunk of a vehicle—and capable of distinguishing magnetic and gravitational fields from environmental noise to inform mathematical models used to map the subsurface environment.14

Neutral-atom-based sensors such as atomic vapor magnetometers or gradiometers can detect very weak vector magnetic fields and gravitational gradients, increasing the resolution of drone maps tenfold.15

The first versions of these quantum sensors are already being used to detect gravitational changes induced by volcanic processes.16 Improvements to minimize the effects of vibrations and sharp maneuvers that can stop the sensors from functioning are needed to scale them for broader use.

Taking quantum sensing to the next level: Action steps

The potential of quantum sensors reaches far beyond the use cases detailed above. For instance, quantum sensors could enable nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and MRI of single cells or individual proteins, transforming diagnostics and treatment in healthcare.

For quantum sensors to achieve broad commercial impact, further development is needed to reduce device size, weight, and power and to improve fabrication cost-efficiency.17 But these advancements are within reach. With strategic investment, industry leaders could accelerate the commercialization of quantum sensors, integrate them into the technology ecosystem, enable the diverse use cases outlined in the previous section, and more.

Focusing on the following actions to unlock the value of quantum sensing can help unleash its potential.

Embrace short-term and long-term value

Quantum sensing is a potentially lucrative emerging market. Near-term sensing applications could generate commercial value even sooner than quantum-computing applications. The potential for scaling quantum-sensing technology is significant—as mentioned above, the technology could disrupt several industries and introduce new capabilities beyond what is currently envisioned. Investment is needed to advance the technology, generate continued value, and explore new quantum-sensing use cases. Although the applications for use cases may be small and medium markets, as applications expand and become more and more numerous, the aggregate economic value becomes considerable.

Integrate into existing technologies and form a new ecosystem

An ecosystem beyond current sensors is emerging. New insights gleaned from using quantum sensors to observe what once was unobservable opens new possibilities, and dedicated quantum-sensing hardware and early AI algorithms for data analysis are being developed. To achieve the greatest impact in the near term, quantum sensors must be integrated into existing technologies and infrastructure. In the longer term, as the technology is adopted more broadly, quantum sensors could provide unique and extensive data sets for training AI algorithms that could have wider-ranging impact. A well-developed ecosystem is central to advancing innovative applications; while innovation clusters are emerging in several geographies, interdisciplinary coordination is vital. An orchestrator could coordinate setting a clear strategy and connect ecosystem stakeholders such as research institutions, start-ups, and industry players to collaborate on quantum-sensing use cases.

Educate talent in quantum sensing

Quantum sensing requires a wide range of expertise and specific capabilities, and if market growth outpaces talent growth, this could create a bottleneck for the industry. Specific training profiles that combine engineering with quantum knowledge are needed to familiarize industry leaders with quantum sensing and its potential and to train both recent graduates and experienced professionals in quantum-relevant skills.

Adopt a new mindset

Current thinking on quantum-sensor use focuses on improving existing applications, but device cost and size and competition with existing technology present obstacles to these improvements. Nonetheless, by pursuing disruptive, forward-looking ideas that push beyond existing applications—for example, exploring the possibilities for quantum sensors in extreme environments where existing technology cannot operate—companies could avoid such pitfalls while making bold strides in new frontiers.

Close the gap between research and industry

To advance potentially new and exciting opportunities, industry players ideally will take a proactive approach to engaging quantum-sensing researchers. Meanwhile, researchers can support new industry endeavors by thinking beyond the lab.

Start-ups will form a critical connection between research and industry, advancing quantum-sensor technology and pursuing novel applications, but they will need visionary investment in long-term potential. Partnerships and collaboration among research, industry, and start-ups could shore up gaps and increase value. Indeed, applying existing research to dedicated use cases in industry is one of the key next steps needed for quantum sensing to thrive.

Henning Soller is a partner in McKinsey’s Frankfurt office, Martina Gschwendtner is a consultant in the Munich office, and Yannick Bormuth is a consultant in the Zurich office. Amanda Stein is a PhD candidate in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, and Ronald Walsworth is the founding director of UMD’s Quantum Technology Center.

The authors wish to thank Anna Heid for her contributions to this blog post.

1 Nabeel Aslam et al., “Quantum sensors for biomedical applications,” Nature Reviews Physics, February 2023, Volume 5; Benjamin Chorpening et al., “Quantum sensing for energy applications: Review and perspective,” Advanced Quantum Technologies, June 2021, Volume 4, Number 8.
2 The internal market comprises the components of the quantum technologies tech stack: infrastructure, hardware, software, and services.
3 For example, see P. Cappellaro, C. L. Degen, and F. Reinhard, “Quantum sensing,” Reviews of Modern Physics, July 2017, Volume 89; Neil Savage, “Quantum diamond sensors,” Nature, March 2021, Volume 591.
4 For example, see Lilian Childress, Mikhail Lukin, and Ronald Walsworth, “Atom-like crystal defects: From quantum computers to biological sensors,” Physics Today, October 2014, Volume 67, Number 10; and Thierry Debuisschert, “Quantum sensing with nitrogen-vacancy color centers in diamond,” Photoniques, March 2021, Number 107.
5 “MetaboliQs—Leveraging room temperature diamond quantum dynamics to enable safe, first-of-its-kind, multimodal cardiac imaging,” Quantum Flagship, accessed May 28, 2024.
6 “Atom-like crystal defects,” October 2014.
7 Implemented using nitrogen-vacancy (NV) center defects in diamonds.
8 “Quantum sensors for biomedical applications,” February 2023.
9 Daniel Boddice et al., “Quantum sensing for gravity cartography,” Nature, February 2022, Volume 602.
10 Quantum sensing use cases: prospects and priorities for emerging quantum sensors, Quantum Economic Development Consortium, September 2022.
11 David R. Glenn et al., “Principles and techniques of the quantum diamond microscope,” Nanophotonics, September 2019, Volume 8, Number 11.
12 Kai Bongs, Simon Bennett, and Anke Lohmann, “Quantum sensors will start a revolution—if we deploy them right,” Nature, May 2023, Volume 617, Number 7962.
13 “Quantum sensing for energy applications,” June 2021.
14 “Quantum sensing for gravity cartography,” February 2022.
15 “Quantum sensors will start a revolution,” May 2023.
16 Laura Antoni-Micollier et al., “Detecting volcano-related underground mass changes with a quantum gravimeter,” Geophysical Research Letters, June 2022, Volume 49, Number 13.
17 “Quantum sensors will start a revolution,” May 2023.