A teenage fascination with space and a keen interest in physics led Lim Huai Ying to pursue mechanical engineering in university. In this chat with SGInnovate, she shares how she is living her dream today, building miniature satellites at SpeQtral, a company that develops quantum communication networks and systems.
Tell us more about SpeQtral!
SpeQtral deals with quantum communications. We don’t just build; we also deploy quantum networks, which are systems that transmit information using quantum encryption technology.
Basically, we’re building the foundation of a quantum internet. With the rise of powerful quantum computers, it is only a matter of time before today’s software-based encryptions based on traditional mathematics are surpassed. So, what we are doing is creating a physics-based encryption method, where no matter how powerful the computer and how foreseeably advanced technology becomes, the encryption remains secure.
The products we develop to enable these global quantum networks take two forms and are encryption keys generated using quantum physics. The first being fibre quantum key distribution (QKD). This is where we use fibre optic cables to transmit quantum keys. The second is satellite QKD, which is what I am working on.
As a teenager, Huai Ying was fascinated with space, especially with the idea of launching a rocket into space.
How did you get started working in a quantum communications startup?
I never imagined that I would end up in such a niche field of work!
During my teenage years, I was more interested in physics but did not know exactly what I wanted to do as a career. So, I decided on mechanical engineering because it would give me the option to specialise in other areas of engineering later on.
While studying at the National University of Singapore (NUS), I joined a nanosatellite research programme because it gave me the opportunity to pursue my interests in space technology (and it sounded cool!). It turned out to be a great learning opportunity as I got the chance to experience hands-on work and even build things like satellite hardware.
For my final-year thesis project, I worked on a small project with the engineering faculty where I developed a prototype for CubeSat propulsion (propulsion mechanism for small satellites). I then stayed on with the research group as a research engineer. Fast forward to a year later, I decided to continue that journey after graduation and work on quantum mechanics at the Centre of Quantum Technologies (CQT), where SpeQtral was spun off from.
What do you do at work and what keeps you interested?
Right now, we are focused on two satellite projects scheduled to be launched in 2024. For both these projects, I am mainly involved in the design and manufacturing of the mechanical parts, as well as the integration and testing of the products that will go into these satellites.
At my current job, I work mainly with CubeSats. I find them interesting because they are like modern-day cell phones, which evolved from big satellite phones. In the same way, CubeSats came from large telecommunications satellites that require long, rigorous testing before launch to ensure that they can work in space.
Traditional satellites require about 10 years of development from start to finish, and a lot of money to build. They also have to work for around 15 years in orbit, which is why we run such rigorous testing to ensure that they are reliable. With CubeSats, you are only looking at a three- to five-year development period, so it requires less testing and money. Thus, things move very quickly, which enables us to keep testing new ideas. That keeps me interested.