More funding is needed for critical, complex computers

Jack Gramenz |

This Sydney University facility helps address what some see as a shortfall in government support.
This Sydney University facility helps address what some see as a shortfall in government support.

Under the warm glow of special laboratory lighting, researchers wearing blue suits are working on technology that could prove vital to Australia’s national security.

But the suits aren’t for protection; they stop dead skin cells and other human detritus from interfering with the sensitive and expensive machinery being used to prototype powerful new computing chips.

The state-of-the-art instruments at Sydney University’s research and prototype foundry also need shielding from blue light, which can interfere with their processes, so a counter-acting orange hue bathes the facility.

An orange hue bathes a 'clean' room to counteract blue light.
An orange hue bathes the ‘clean’ rooms inside the state-of-the-art research and prototype foundry. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS)

Inside, researchers and businesses try to make their designs a reality.

Archer Materials chief executive Mohammad Choucair told AAP it took courage (and $150 million) to create the facility, which companies like his can use in their research.

It provides a reduced timeline for developing new technologies by supporting quicker prototyping.

“If you can iterate quickly during the early stages of R&D (research and development), that is invaluable, and a facility like this allows you to do that,” Dr Choucair said.

The foundry’s academic director Professor Simon Fleming told AAP the facility and others like it are helping support research and development, both in the pursuit of knowledge and potential commercialisation of the innovations produced, helping address what some see as a shortfall in government support.

“Compared to other nations, we don’t invest that much … there’s also a weakness in industry that it doesn’t spend much on research,” he said.

“That’s not just an industry issue, it’s got to do with how receptive the universities are to work with the industry.”

The Australian Academy of Science’s snapshot of spending in the recent federal budget on research expenditure shows an investment of roughly 0.54 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product of just under $15 billion.

It is more than the last financial year and is set to increase by about $600 million by 2027/28, but still represents a decline, academy president Chennupati Jagadish told AAP.

“We are doing a lot of catch-up,” Professor Jagadish said.

Government funding has fallen alongside reduced research and development spending from the private sector, while the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted universities, he said, calling for funding to rise to three per cent of gross domestic product.

Archer Materials CEO Dr Mohammad Choucair
Archer Materials CEO Mohammad Choucair says the new facility will speed up the work of scientists. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS)

In addition to support from the university facility, Archer has received government support in the form of research and development tax incentives.

Dr Choucair said the millions of dollars his company has received over the years have helped it to invest in staff and the continuity of the business, as well as the work.

“It’s expensive to do semi-conductor research, that’s a high barrier to entry,” he said.

Archer is working on the development of quantum computing technology, an emerging and vastly more powerful process theorised to deliver significantly more power.

Quantum computing recently attracted widespread attention in Australia with a $940 million injection in Californian-headquartered company PsiQuantum to build a quantum computer in Brisbane.

Federal Industry Minister Ed Husic has said it could help crack some of the biggest problems not even modern super-computers could fathom.

However, the decision has raised questions about such a heavy investment in one quantum route instead of a diverse range of research.

Australia is not the only government taking an interest, with the US and China both heavy investors in quantum technologies.

The Foreign Investment Review Board classifies quantum technologies as critical and capable of significantly enhancing or threatening Australia’s national interest. It encourages foreign investors to voluntarily notify the government if they plan to invest.

But fundamental research without specific intended uses needs to continue, with international collaboration, and the government needs to invest broadly, Prof Jagadish said.

“We still don’t know which out of those multiple quantum technologies being pursued, both in Australia and globally, ultimately are really going to take off,” Prof Jagadish said.

Quantum computing is an important and futuristic technology but governments should also invest in high-performance supercomputers, to help design more advanced chips as well as continue doing things quantum computers may not be able to, Prof Jagadish said.

Dr Choucair said high computing power can be a research requirement.

“Some elements of it just require some very basic resonators that you can just draw on the back of an envelope, some of it’s built of many, many, many years of knowledge, but a lot of it is still in the unknown.

“There is still a lot of computation and modelling that’s required to help with the design and development of the materials and the chips themselves that you’re trying to build,” he said.

He said Archer welcomes foreign investment board oversight, particularly as a publicly listed company.

“We’re all about transparency, you have such a complex technology … you need to be able to provide that level of transparency,” he said.

The national science agency CSIRO has estimated that quantum computing in Australia has the potential to create 10,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in annual revenue by 2040.